Nancy Drew Meets Jack Daniels

There's something delightfully endearing about Lisa Lutz's kinetic and quirky The Spellman Files. It reads like a well-scripted television sitcom/family drama and, considering Lutz's screenwriting background, that vibe makes perfect sense. As soon as I'd finished reading this offbeat novel, I wanted to binge-read the rest of the books in the series.


The Spellmans are a zany-but-lovable family of private investigators, full of foibles and beautifully human flaws. The twentysomething narrator, Izzy, is the middle child and the most troublesome of the bunch, especially in comparison to picture-perfect elder brother David and precocious little sister Rae. Steadfast David has chosen to escape the family business, but reformed Izzy is in deep, and crafty Rae wants to follow in her sister's messy footsteps. Pandemonium ensues.

Lutz has described Izzy as "Nancy Drew meets Jack Daniels" and the characters' introspection and self-deprecating sense of humor are what make this book so fun to read. Izzy's like your smart but wayward friend who can't say the words "I love you," yet you know she does.

The Spellman Files isn't quite a mystery novel, but then again it isn't not one. It's a fast-paced tangle through the threads of a hundred minor mysteries, and one major, woven amongst Izzy's amusing, confessional lists and observances; well-crafted descriptions of eccentric family dynamics; and the never-mundane minutiae of daily life. All the characters are written boldly outside the lines, yet their dysfunction makes them believable and often relatable. There's a palpable vulnerability and poignancy throughout that keeps the book from being too light and fluffy.

It's hard to characterize, or even accurately describe, The Spellman Files, but it fits somewhere between Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series and Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. I deeply liked the characters and was rooting for them, and at the same time I was good-naturedly rolling my eyes at their chaos and hoping they would finally pull their act together.

The Spellman Files is a fanciful take on the mystery crime genre and, after finishing it, you might want to binge-read the next five books in the series, too. It's entertaining because it's so nutty. And aren't we all, at least a little?

Allison Tyler loves to read, and encourages you to support your local library.

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