"I duck into the parking garage, hoping to escape. But my boots echo on the slick cement, broadcasting my location to anyone listening. And I know they are listening." So run the opening sentences of Lisa Lutz's wry novel, The Spellman Files, and the people listening and forcing the main character into a dangerous car chase are HER PARENTS.
We recognize Isabel Spellman's voice immediately. With her staccato rhythms and deliberate vernacularisms, her street-wise pose and her penchant for grungy "denim and leather," Isabel's persona lies somewhere between "Dirty Harry and Nancy Drew." But Isabel's true antecedents lie deeper in the past, in that genre known as "hardboiled" or "noir." Like her precursors, Isabel is a private investigator. And like the characters who populate The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, Isabel lives on the margins, unable (or perhaps unwilling) to assimilate into the mainstream. Readers will recognize elements of their favorite gumshoes (from Lew Archer to Sam Spade) in Isabel.
Although readers can draw ready parallels between Lutz and Raymond Chandler, or Lutz and Dashiell Hammett (especially since Lutz and Hammett both engage San Francisco's social and physical geography), The Spellman Files lies closer, in spirit and intent, to Ross McDonald's psycho-thrillers. The book bears a strong resemblance to McDonald's Black Money, one of the first to feature the detective Lew Archer. McDonald, writing in the 1960s, was more interested in writing sociology. He remains exterior to his characters, weaving a dense socio-economic tapestry around a handful of archetypes. Lutz, however, turns towards the interior, and she gives us action and emotion in equal measure. In contrast to her hard-edge forebears, one might call Lutz's particular approach to the thriller "soft-boiled."
The Spellman Files borrows its structure from the hard-boiled thriller, but family constitutes Lutz's greatest, most insistent theme. Isabel works for the family business, Spellman Investigations. The Spellman family has 5 members (Albert, Olivia, David, Isabel, and Rae), plus one (Uncle Ray). The Spellmans are a lovable but dysfunctional family, working out their family issues with old fashioned tools of the gumshoe trade. One family member's sugar habit might trigger an all night stake out, a teenage infraction could turn into an interrogation session in the basement of the Spellman family home. Then there is Isabel, whose problematic notions of femininity are a constant source of humor (and humiliation) for the narrator.
As a twenty-first century thriller, taking place in twenty-first century San Francisco, The Spellman Files addresses both gender and family issues with directness and empathy. Gender (and trouble with conventional gender models) figures from the very beginning of The Spellman Files, the moment we first encounter Isabel Spellman. Her gender confusion, illustrated by her commitment to clunky boots and her aversion to commitments of a more romantic nature, prefigures the book's larger themes.
The thriller genre, with its set archetypes and devices, sets the stage for Lutz's investigation of the nuclear family and its uncertain loyalties. Why do we love? And more importantly, in an age of "urban tribes" and shifting personal allegiances, why do we continue to love our families? While earlier writers like Chandler and McDonald may have favored Freudian plotlines, Lutz gives her readers a warmer, fuzzier picture of humanity. Family, for Lutz, is a source of pain, but never an agent. Though the book grapples with serious issues, and delivers the occasional dark moment, Lutz never loses her light touch. Like little sister Rae's beloved sugary confections, The Spellman Files goes down easy. (And, say other members of the KQED Arts & Culture blogger collective, it's a great book to take to the beach!)
Lisa Lutz will be reading at Stacey's Books in San Francisco at 12:30pm on March 26, 2007 and at the Capitola Book & Cafe in Capitola that same evening at 7:30pm.