San Francisco has always been a great venue for detective and police stories. Hilly streets, foghorns and cable cars somehow manage to create a fairy tale aura within a costal urban setting. We have seen Sam Spade and Harry Callahan emerge as iconic fictive heroes in the City by the Bay. Now we see that Isabel Spellman, the mid-thirtyish private investigator in Lisa Lutz’s Trail of the Spellmans, is already becoming a San Francisco legend of her own with apparently a growing cult following fueled by a major publisher in Simon &Schuster.
Trail of the Spellmans marks the fifth book by Ms. Lutz featuring Isabel and her zany family. This book can best be described as comic detective in genre, with the risible idiosyncratic characters much more interesting than the various story lines.
Isabel comes across as resourceful woman who can manage very well by herself. Henry, ex-boyfriend #13, has just left her because Isabel has opted for not wanting to have children. Perhaps she has made this decision by witnessing how a child has transformed her Stanford law-degreed brother into a didactic nursemaid.
Isabel’s cases are rather prosaic. There are the parents wanting to keep an eye on their college-age daughter. Another client is a neurotic man who keeps on asking her to check out his apartment to see if the faucets and stove burners are turned off. There is one case that looks like potential extortion, but Isabel skillfully intervenes before any crime takes place. No murder and mayhem in this book.
Her characters, however, are far from prosaic, and that is why this book is an interesting, if not a memorable read. I particularly liked Demetrius Merriweather, a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and served fifteen years in prison. After his release, Demetrius becomes a valuable member of the Spellman investigative team.
I assume a sixth book about Isabel and her family is in the works. Will she eventually marry and have children? Will David leave the nursery go back to his law firm? Cutesy stuff, but somehow I prefer Sam Spade and the search for the Maltese Falcon.