It appears to be my week to read and write about books that wrap up a series I’ve been reading for years but have never talked about on the blog. This is a confusing and somewhat annoying experience. The Last Word: A Spellman Novel is the (probably) last book in a series of mystery novels written by Lisa Lutz. They are about the Spellmans, a family of private investigators living in San Francisco. I’ve been reading these books for a few years, but the last one I read was in 2012, about two months before we started the blog. This last book was released in hardcover in the summer of 2013 and I obviously jumped right on reading it. But now is not the time for self-flagellation regarding my reading schedule.
These novels are told in the first person; Isabel “Izzy” Spellman is our narrator. In this novel she is thirty-five years old; when the series started she was twenty-eight. Her narrative voice is sarcastic and hilarious and overall just something I enjoy reading. The Spellman family consists of parents Olivia and Albert, and three children: David, a successful lawyer; Izzy, a not-so-successful PI/retired juvenile delinquent; and Rae, who is twenty-two in this novel, and has just graduated from UC Berkeley and is trying to make up her mind about her future. Her options are graduate school, law school, or a career in “conflict resolution”/extortion. Rae is possibly Lisa Lutz’s most well-developed character in the series. It could also be Izzy, but the thing with Rae is that I never knew what she was going to do next. Izzy was much more predictable, but that could just be because I was in her head, not Rae’s. There are many supporting characters who I am not going to get into; suffice it to say that they are all well-drawn and fairly likeable, except the ones who are really, really unlikeable.
The Spellmans are a very odd family. No one trusts anyone else, and everyone is always spying on everyone else, often with hilarious results. There are fewer shenanigans in this last novel than in prior ones; in fact, this novel deals with more serious family matters than the others did, at least as far as I can remember. At the end of the fifth book in the series, Izzy staged a slightly hostile takeover of Spellman Investigations. Her parents fired her because she had disobeyed orders to cease and desist an investigation; she, in turn, went ahead and bought out her brother and sister’s shares in the company, becoming the majority partner, and let’s just say things went to her head a bit. Her parents retaliated by coming to work in pajamas, or not at all. (The office is in their house, so the pajama thing is sort of reasonable.) At the opening of The Last Word, Izzy is barely speaking to “the unit,” which is how she and her siblings refer to their parents, and the company is barely afloat. If it weren’t for the cases that Izzy is catching from her financial backer Edward Slayter (who helped her buy out Rae and David and was the subject of the investigation that cost her her job in the first place), I don’t think they would have much income at all. Edward Slayter is actually a pretty important supporting character. He is the CEO of a venture capital firm, and takes a shine to Izzy, for reasons unknown to all, especially him. They initially meet in book five, Trail of the Spellmans, when Izzy is surveiling him on behalf of his wife, who wanted to keep tabs on him so she could engage in an affair without being caught. When Izzy discovers the reason why Mrs. Slayter hired Spellman Investigations, she contacts Edward and lets him know what his wife is up to. Her parents did not want her to do this, but she does it anyway. I don’t remember the details of their reasoning, but Izzy felt strongly that she needed to do it, and she and Edward are bonded because of it. Turns out that Edward has early-onset Alzheimer’s, a fact he is trying to keep concealed for as long as possible because he fears he will lose his company when it becomes public. The major mystery in The Last Word revolves around corporate espionage and embezzlement, with someone trying to frame Izzy while also attempting to make Edward appear that he is losing his marbles. I won’t disclose more than that—this is a plot-driven mystery novel, and I don’t want to do spoilers today.
There is also Spellman family drama, but more of the actual illness variety than the typical spy vs. spy thing, though there are amusing interludes with David’s toddler daughter who thinks she is a princess and is a tiny tyrant in a pink dress. It appears that this will be the last Spellman family novel, at least for the time being, and it does make me sad. I enjoy spending time with these wacky people, and it doesn’t hurt that Lutz knows her San Francisco geography and landmarks. Izzy drinks at The Philosopher’s Club in West Portal, which is a real dive bar; she takes a date to Pancho Villa burritos at 16th and Mission, which I’ve heard is amazing though I’ve never been there myself (we were an El Faro Burrito family back in the day); she tails a subject on the Bay Bridge and 880 South. Each book is like a little trip home for me.
This book is probably the most serious of the entire series; overall they are pretty light-hearted, with decent mysteries at their core. The family dynamics are completely not based in reality, but they do love one another deep down. I’ve enjoyed reading Lisa Lutz and I have her other two books ready and waiting to devour. I don’t want to read them too soon, though. I want to look forward to them for a while longer. I’ve never read any Sue Grafton or Janet Evanovich, but I think that people who like those books will enjoy this series, as well as anyone who likes reading novels that take place in San Francisco that were written by authors who know The City really well.
PS: This book was sort of renamed to Spellman 6: The Next Generation when it came out in paperback. I found this irritating and confusing when it first happened, and wanted to mention it in case anyone came here wondering if the two books were different. They are not.