The Spellman Files — Lisa Lutz

I laughed (which could be an ideal two-word review of every comedic novel), especially during the first half of The Spellman Files, and laughter balms many errors. Unlike most mystery or nominal mystery stories The Spellman Files is worth reading, but on a sentence level the novel is a mass of clichés, though the premise is interesting and the narrative proceeds intelligently. One can only wish that the same intelligence that structured the narrative also be used to consider the sentences.

Spellman_filesClichés accumulate like snow in Boston: “Finker was none the wiser” (8). Or: “But for many years, my attributes (for what they’re worth) were obscured by my defiant ways” (19). We don’t need “for what they’re worth;” attributes, like most other nouns, are only there for what they’re worth, not for what they’re not worth (though negating that cliché does raise interesting intellectual possibilities; alas that we don’t see such possibilities deployed here). Parents take a child’s story “with a grain of salt” (252). These are the sorts of problems that should’ve been edited out yet they weren’t.

The language gets a little better as the novel proceeds, but the initial problems are never resolved. Too bad. There’s a better novel in this one, and this one isn’t terrible. As with many plot-dependent books the outcome is less satisfying than the buildup. Yet the dialogue consistently shines:

“Nice duds,” I said as Daniel put his briefcase on the floor and slid into the car.
“Thanks. This is my drug-buying outfit,” Daniel said dryly.
“Did you bring the money?” I asked.
“Yes, I brought the drug money,” he said.
“You can just say ‘money’; you don’t have to say ‘drug money.'”
“Yes, I brought the money.”

I feel like I too would mistakenly say “drug money.” I’ll note too that in The Spellman Files Family dysfunction meets family work meets a sexually adventurous protagonist whose adventurousness is not played for drama. It’s an unusual combination on the plot and character level.

Family businesses exert a special pull on those not involved in them, perhaps because they wrap economic and psychological forces unusually closely together. Work also means status: “While I had already made a name for myself as the difficult child, my status as employee redeemed many of my other less-than qualities.” To those involved, family businesses may be annoying and even weirdly repulsive for precisely the same reasons. Combining the family business with the detective story is a winning mutation.

Other sentences work: “like so many other alpha males, my brother thinks monogamy is something you do somewhere between age forty and retirement” (71). Interesting that Isabel, the narrator, has enough data to generalize about the nature of “alpha males” and that she casually uses the term. Perhaps it’s seeping into the general lexicon.

Finally, one smaller note, not wholly about The Spellman Files: Novels are compendiums of social negotiation and fuck-ups; the fuck-ups tend to be more interesting in fiction and sometimes in real life, though in life one lives with the consequences.

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