Lisa Lutz never anticipated writing a book. An aspiring screenwriter, she began the script for a mob farce in 1991 at age 21, and quit her day job the moment Hollywood producers came calling. But it was more than a decade—and 25 revisions—later that the film, Plan B, starring Diane Keaton, Paul Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne, was actually made. Following a West Coast premiere set for September 11, 2001, the movie had a week-long limited release after which—with the exception of a few small film festivals—it was rarely shown in the United States.
But that's OK, because Lutz herself gives two thumbs down to the final product. "I don't recommend anyone watching the version that is out right now," she says. "I enjoyed—to an extent—how funny and silly it was. But [for this] to be my life's work? That felt so insane." Her dream of writing a Hollywood movie had been realized, but Lutz was smarting from her bumpy road to the big screen. "Nothing went well," she says of the process. "We started to call the production 'the curse of Plan B.' "
Somewhere around rewrite number six, the producers decided to cut a secondary character on which a major plot point hung, and Lutz's story caved in on itself. The finale of the writing process was a fax from the producers demanding that a lead character die by being eaten by an alligator. Lutz made the change, but was distraught that the story was no longer hers. "It's really hard to have something you worked that hard on be massacred," she says.
Soured on Tinseltown, Lutz vowed never to write a script again, instead holing up in a relative's 200-year-old house in upstate New York in the dead of winter in 2004. Six months later, she emerged from hibernation with a first draft of what was to become her first novel.
"I think I wrote a better novel than I ever wrote a screenplay," she says. The first in a planned series, The Spellman Files tells the story of Isabelle Spellman, a tough-talking 28-year-old (described by another character as "Dirty Harry meets Nancy Drew") who works for her eccentric family's P.I. business. Investigating others is their formal objective, but the family—including alcoholic gambler Uncle Ray and Izzy's 14-year-old sister Rae (who is known to snap incriminating photos of family members to use as blackmail)—regularly probe each other's lives as well. This comes to a head when Izzy starts dating nice-guy dentist Daniel and can't go on a date without turning around to find her mother hot on her tail. "The truth was, I never doubted for a moment that my parents loved me," Izzy says of this parental over-involvement. "But love in my family has a bite to it and sometimes you get tired of icing all those tooth marks."
To save her sanity, Izzy wants out of the P.I. dynasty. Her parents agree to let her go, as long as she completes a final assignment. As Izzy tries to solve the near-impossible 12-year-old missing persons case, Rae suddenly disappears, leading Izzy to reevaluate her priorities and put her skills to the ultimate test: finding her little sister.
Lutz didn't have to look far for research. While writing Plan B, she did a two-year stint working for a private investigator, and the tricks of the trade she picked up (such as smashing the taillights of car you're following to make it easier to spot—a tactic Izzy employs on a regular basis) populate the novel. Though these details are drawn from real life, Lutz is adamant that her family is nothing like the meddlesome Spellmans. And as for Izzy?
"Izzy has my sense of humor, because I don't think I could write in a totally different sense of humor," Lutz says. "But I'm no taillight-smashing vandal."
The Spellman Files has been optioned by Paramount, but Lutz swears she won't play a major role in the film's production. Instead, she's wrapping up the Spellman sequel, planning her next novel, thinking about writing a play and reflecting on the lessons she learned from her ill-fated Hollywood foray. "People think you can get what you want if you just keep trying. But the moment I tried something different and approached it from a different way, I got what I wanted," she says of her open-mindedness about writing form.
Then she pauses for a moment. "I think it's luck, too," she says. "I do think I got very lucky this time around." Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2006 November #2
A spirited, funny debut from screenwriter Lutz that mixes chick-lit, mystery and a dose of TV nostalgia.Isabel Spellman has family issues. Her parents are a mismatched pair of private investigators who routinely run credit and background checks on their older daughter's dates. Her Uncle Ray survived a bout of cancer and now makes up for lost time, drinking, smoking and disappearing for days on end. Her amoral baby sister, Rae, negotiates everything for cash or candy, and her brother, David, is distressingly perfect. In its own way, this dysfunctional family works, and 28-year-old "Izzy" works with it, literally, as a PI for Spellman Investigations. A formerly wayward teen, known for her own lost weekends, Izzy has found herself in the nuts and bolts of PI work, from surveillance to lock-picking. But once Izzy falls for ultra-normal Daniel (he's a dentist), she begins to question her lifestyle, with its constant undercurrent of deceit and suspicion. Not that it doesn't fit her misfit personality, with its twin preoccupations of drinking and Get Smart re-runs. "I had always loved the job," she realizes in a moment of clarity. "I just hadn't always liked who I became doing it." But her exit strategy is complicated when her parents stick her on a dead-end case that excites her investigator's instincts; her best friend, Petra, starts acting oddly normal (and having tattoos removed); and Rae disappears. Written in a conversational first-person that includes Izzy's "files," such as her list of ex-boyfriends and their exit lines, these various mysteries all come together in a rush of humor and chaos. It's all casual, swift and hip. But an underpinning of reality, the complex emotions of growing up and letting go, shows through occasionally, warming up this hilarious debut.A fresh story that works real issues through an offbeat premise.First printing of 150,000 Copyright Kirkus 2006 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 November #2
Big buzz at the London Book Fair, multiple foreign rights sales, and a film sale to Spider-Man's producer-what more could a first novelist want? Lutz's heroine works for her nutty family's detective business. With a three-city tour. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 March #2
Isabel "Izzy" Spellman is a private detective whose story has a twist--the agency she works for is owned by her parents and is located in their home. Izzy's perfect brother, David, worked in the family business before becoming an attorney. Her uncle does contract work for them, and even kid sister Rae is a surveillance genius with a particular talent for picking locks and trailing people. Because of her family's quirkiness, Izzy tries to keep them apart from the new love of her life, Daniel Castillo, D.D.S. But the Spellmans' cheerful, idiosyncratic existence is shadowed by Rae's sudden disappearance. It's hard to believe that this extraordinarily clever book is a debut novel. Lutz showed her comic flair in her screenplay for the film Plan B , a 2001 "mob comedy" starring Diane Keaton, and it sparkles in this book as well. This first title in a new series about the eccentric Spellman family will be a welcome addition to mystery collections of all sizes, and sure to be enjoyed by fans of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum and Meg Cabot's Heather Wells.--Shelley Mosley, Glendale Community Coll. Lib. Media Ctr., AZ[Page 63]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Cracking the case can get complicated and outrageously wacky when a family of detectives is involved, but Lutz has a blast doing it in her delicious debut. Isabel "Izzy" Spellman, a San Francisco PI who began working for Spellman Investigations at age 12, could easily pass as Buffy or Veronica Mars's wiser but funnier older sister. Izzy digs TV, too, especially Get Smart (an ex-boyfriend's ownership of the complete bootlegged DVD set is his major selling point). Now 28, Izzy thinks she wants out, but elects to take on a cold case while dealing with 14-year-old sister Rae, a nightmarish Nancy Drew, and parents who have no qualms about bugging their children's bedrooms. At times the dialogue-heavy text reads like a script and the action flags, but these are quibbles. When Rae suddenly disappears, Izzy and her family must learn some serious lessons in order to find her. Can the family that snoops together stay together? Stay tuned as a dynamic new series unfolds. 150,000 first printing. (Mar.)[Page 31]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.