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Trail of the Spellmans
Table of Contents
About The Book
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN SPELLMAN HISTORY, Isabel Spellman, PI, might be the most normal member of her family. Mom has taken on an outrageous assortment of extracurricular activities—with no apparent motive. Dad has a secret. Izzy’s brother and sister are at war—for no apparent reason. And her niece keeps saying “banana” even though she hates bananas. That’s not to say that Izzy isn’t without her own troubles. Her boyfriend, Henry Stone, keeps wanting “to talk,” a prospect Isabel evades by going out with her new drinking buddy, none other than Gertrude Stone, Henry’s mother. Things aren’t any simpler on the business side of Spellman Investigations. First, Rae is hired to follow a girl, but then fakes the surveillance reports. Then a math professor hires Izzy to watch his immaculate apartment while he unravels like a bad formula. And as the questions pile up, Izzy won’t stop hunting for the answers—even when they threaten to shatter both the business and the family.
I do my job. I watch. I take notes. I snap pictures and record video. I document subjects’ activities through a filter of twenty years of disassociation. I don’t judge. I don’t manipulate the evidence. I simply report my findings to the client. The client can use the information however they see fit. At least that’s the line I feed them. But the truth is always a murkier business.
Female subject, 5’5”, 125 lbs, dark brown hair, wearing blue jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt over a dark green military jacket, exits a San Francisco apartment building at Twenty-sixth and Noe. She walks east down the street, scanning the parked cars. She presses a remote key and looks for a flash of headlights. A BMW winks in the distance. Female subject spins in a circle, checking her perimeter; approaches car; gets inside; and starts the engine. She drives east down to South Van Ness Avenue and makes a left turn, stopping on the corner of Seventeenth and South Van Ness at the establishment of Oscar’s Auto. Subject drives vehicle into covered garage. Unable to establish a visual on subject for fifteen minutes.
Subject and an unknown male (midforties, heavyset, wearing blue mechanic’s jumpsuit with the Oscar’s Auto logo embroidered on the breast pocket) exit the office of establishment. They approach a tow truck with the same logo painted on the side. Subject slips an unidentifiable object into her pocket and jumps into a truck with unknown male. Investigator follows subject vehicle to a liquor store. Unknown male enters the store and leaves three minutes later with a large brown bag (about the size of a six-pack of beer).1
The tow truck returns subject to the residence on Twenty-sixth Street where she was previously seen exiting. Subject rings the buzzer. (Could not establish unit number.) Female subject then enters the building and all visual contact is lost.
* * *
The preceding events would appear innocent enough to the naked eye, but let me enlighten you as to what the naked eye missed just a few hours earlier that evening: Female Subject met the owner of the BMW in a bar; Female Subject was not of legal drinking age; Female Subject was not the owner of the vehicle taken to Oscar’s repair shop. Finally—and how could you know this?—Oscar’s Auto is a well-known chop shop, doing an arthritic limbo under the radar of the law. Subject, based on my three weeks of surveillance, was a regular menace to society, masquerading as a high-achieving coed.
* * *
My phone rang just as I was about to end the surveillance and head home. The caller ID said “The Tortoise.” Someone had been tampering with my phone.
“Hello,” I said.
“Where is everyone?”
“I don’t know, Dad.” For the record, I wasn’t withholding information. I really didn’t know.
“I’m tired of always being alone in the house.”
“You’re not alone.”
“Other than You Know Who.”
“Why doesn’t You Know Who have a nickname yet?” I asked.
“I think we’re going with ‘You Know Who’ as a nickname.”
“Kind of messes with our animal theme, don’t you think?”
“Sometimes you got to break protocol.”
“True,” I said. I couldn’t have agreed more.
“Sorry to hear that, Mr. Tortoise.”
“And I hate my nickname. I should be able to come up with my own.”
“Did you call for a chat?”
“Dinner did not go over very well.”
“The roast?” I asked.
“And that’s something coming from you. Did Mom blame me?”
“No, she took full responsibility.”
“Where is she?”
“Origami or pie making, I don’t remember.”
“Those are two very different things, Dad.”
“Any action tonight?”
“Are you there?” Dad said. I could hear him tapping his finger on the phone, like it was an old transistor radio.
“I thought we were no longer sharing information.”
“Only on cases we’re working separately. So, any action?” Dad repeated.
“Not unless you consider studying or watching TV—or both—action.”
“Good. Can you drop by the house on your way back? I need the surveillance camera for tomorrow.”
“You know better than to ask questions like that.”
* * *
I waited outside the Noe Valley apartment for another five minutes, gathering my thoughts. Female subject peered out of the window, checking the empty street, and then defenestrated herself, hanging from the window frame and dropping four feet to the ground. She then sauntered down the street in the direction of her apartment, just over a mile away.
After my conversation with the Tortoise, I made a quick U-turn and watched female subject through my rearview mirror. I had to ask myself whether I was doing my job or if I was an accessory after the fact.
* * *
At home, I found my father staring at a stack of paperwork that had to be filed. Filing always made him sad, borderline depressed, and since he thought he’d seen the end of those days, to have them return only stoked his sadness. He pressed the intercom button when he saw me.
“The Gopher has landed,” he said.
“I really wish you’d stop that,” I said.
“I can’t,” he helplessly replied.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked.
“The Eagle2 is on the tarmac.”
“It’s just pathetic,” I muttered as I left the room.
The Eagle was indeed on the tarmac (or the couch, as it is commonly known), watching the evening news.
On the drive to Spellman headquarters I debated, as I have over the last three months, how much information I should divulge. I’m a spectacular liar (“magician of the truth” is the new phrase I’m working with). I’ve studied deception enough to know the universal tells, and I can embody honesty to virtually anyone, except a member of my family. With them I have to turn my behavior inside-out, assume a liarlike demeanor at all times—toss in sarcasm with the truth. A salad of honesty and deception is the only way I can get away with an untruth. My point is that I was planning on lying to my parents about the evening’s events and there is a particular way to go about it.
“Did the Sparrow flee the nest at all this evening?” my mother asked, staring at the evening news.
The Sparrow did indeed flee the nest, and another nest, and then she stole a car. With the right delivery, I could both manage a lie and have it read like the truth.
“Not unless you count a study break of grand theft auto,” I sarcastically replied.
“Write it up,” said Mom. “I think it might be time to tell the Blakes that this surveillance is merely a drain on their bank account.”3
“Maybe we wait just a little bit longer,” I replied.
“Why?” my mother asked suspiciously. “That doesn’t sound like you.”
“It’s finals week. She could be distracted.”
I fetched a beer from the fridge and sat down on the couch next to my mom.
“Don’t forget to write the report,” Mom said. “It’s always better to do it when it’s fresh in your mind.”
“ ‘Subject remained in her apartment for five hours studying.’ ” I spoke as if into a tape recorder. “It shouldn’t take very long to type that up.”
Silence finally set in.
Television is the perfect anecdote for unwanted conversation. I don’t know how humans ever survived without it.
After a few bars of the grating evening-news theme song, an earnest middle-aged man related a story about a brutal triple-murder-followed-by-suicide in Vallejo. He looked appropriately grave for two full seconds and then turned to his female counterpart.
She nodded, furrowed her brow, and said, “A tragedy . . . And now, I believe we have some breaking news about the tree sitters in Berkeley.”
The camera shifted to the image of a khaki-and-windbreaker-clad newscaster in front of the oak grove on the UC Berkeley campus. Over the hum of protesters and bullhorns, the newscaster shouted into the microphone.
“For a week now, tree sitters working in shifts have lived on the three-hundred-year-old oak tree in protest of a campus development project that would require the trees’ removal. Negotiations began last week but have stalled . . . University officials are once again at odds with the environmental activists who have proven to be worthy adversaries in the past . . . ”
Just then my father entered the room and planted himself next to me on the couch. “You have to admire their dedication,” he said.
“I want to know when they use the restroom,” my mother said.
“That’s what the bucket is for,” I said.
The newscaster continued his report.
“. . . The tree sitters have managed to maintain a constant vigil by working in shifts. In the middle of the night there was a changing of the guards, when the police were called away by a disturbance in the sculpture garden . . . ”
The camera panned over to one of the grand old oaks and closed in on the tree sitter du jour. The reporter continued. “Currently the police are trying to find a safe and peaceful way to end the standoff. We will keep you posted on the latest developments.”
The news cut to an Ivory Soap commercial. My mother picked up her cell phone, pressed number three on her speed dial, and waited until the voice mail kicked in.
“Rae. This is your mother calling. Get the hell out of that tree right now!”
1. I have an eye for this sort of thing.
2. I’ll explain all this animal crap shortly.
3. Shockingly, my mother shows occasional bursts of fiscal integrity.
Reading Group Guide
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In Trail of the Spellmans, the fifth installment of Lisa Lutz’s bestselling series, the quirky Spellman PIs again find themselves with more questions than your average family could handle. Luckily for them, they aren’t your average family.
Isabel’s love life is on the rocks—much like the unexpected drinks she’s sharing with her boyfriend’s mother, Gerty. Rather than face the fact that she and Henry may want different things in life, she resorts to The Avoidance Method by burying herself in work.
And there’s plenty of work to be buried in. Objects are going amiss from the apartment of math professor Walter Perkins. Meanwhile, suspicious parents hire the firm to follow their daughter, whose only shady activities seem somehow tangled with Rae’s. Finally, two clients’ surveillance requests present the Spellmans with a conflict of interest, causing Isabel’s father to enact a “Chinese wall.” Of course, no wall is big enough to keep Isabel out for long. She soon learns that she was right about one of the client’s dishonest intentions.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Of Albert and Olivia Spellman’s three children, Isabel is the only one who wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps and be a true part of the family business. Why do you think this is? What sets her apart from her brother and sister?
2. In the early chapters of the novel, Isabel spends time discussing her opinion of “Old David” versus “New David.” Ultimately, how do you think she feels about each of the two versions of her brother? If she had to choose between them, which do you think she would prefer to have around? Which would you prefer?
3. What did you think about Rae Spellman’s manipulation of Sydney’s vocabulary, using the “Banana Offensive”? Was it a retaliation against David for “training” her when she was a child, or was it a genuine scientific inquiry?
4. Isabel is surprised to find how well she gets along with Gertrude “Gerty” Stone, her boyfriend Henry’s mother. Why do you think the two are drawn to each other? What do they have in common?
5.According to Bernie, he and Gerty are “just two old ships who collided in the night.” Isabel clearly takes issue with their relationship; did you? Did you support Isabel’s decision not to tell Henry about Bernie and Gerty’s courtship?
6. Of the unlikely friendships in the novel—Isabel and Gerty, Isabel and Charlie Black, Demetrius and Grammy Spellman—which were you most surprised by, and which do you think makes the most sense? Can you think of any other unlikely friendships that emerge during the course of the novel?
7. How did you react to Isabel’s relationship with Henry? Did you suspect that their relationship was coming to an end? What characteristics would a man need to have for Isabel to be with him permanently? What do you think she is looking for?
8. Do you think Albert’s installment of the “Chinese wall” is helpful or hurtful to the family’s work? Why do you think Isabel opposes it so strongly?
9. Isabel is notoriously skeptical of people she doesn’t know. Why does she place her trust in Charlie Black? What does Isabel like about Charlie? Do you think the Slayter case would have ended differently without him?
10. How are each of the members of the Spellman family, including Demetrius, affected by the arrival of Grandma Ruth Spellman to their household? Similarly, how would you describe Grammy Spellman in just three words? How do you think Olivia would describe Grammy Spellman in three words?
11. Isabel says, “As much as one might like to believe that I’ve eased into adulthood without a fight, let there be no mistake. I’m still fighting.” At what points in the novel do you think Isabel is fighting adulthood? At what times does she embrace the transition?
12. Did your opinion of Walter change from the beginning of the novel to the end? Were you surprised to find out who had been messing with his apartment?
13. By coming clean to Mr. Slayter and providing him with evidence of his wife’s infidelity, Isabel gets personally involved in the case, thereby breaking one of her dad’s most important rules. Do you think she did the right thing, or should she have remained neutral?
14. If you’ve read Lisa Lutz’s previous four Spellman novels, which one is your favorite? Why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Rae and Al enjoy creating code names for the members of the Spellman clan. For example, they dub Isabel “the Gopher” because she likes to dig through the dirt. Have the members of your reading group choose nicknames for one another, and don’t forget to give explanations as to why you think the names are fitting.
2. From cranberry scones and cherry clafoutis to his famous “Crack Mix,” Demetrius’s homemade treats never go unappreciated by the members of the Spellman family. Choose one or more of your favorite dishes from the novel and make them for your reading group to eat during your discussion.
3. Even Isabel’s father found her high-school self’s snarky, “wholly inappropriate” thank you notes amusing. Is there anyone you’d like to “thank” in the Isabel way? Have the members of your discussion group write quirky thank you notes. But unlike Isabel, you might want to think twice about actually sending them!
4. Cast your ideal Trail of the Spellmans movie with your discussion group. Who would play Isabel? Rae? How about paranoid Walter, or conniving Margaret Slayter?
5. Lisa Lutz may be available to call in to your book club discussion. You can email your request for a call-in to email@example.com with the subject line, “Request to call my book group.”
A Conversation with Lisa Lutz
Isabel tells her readers that they should “quit guessing and let the story unfold as it may,” that even she doesn’t “know how all the pieces will fall.” Do you know how all the pieces will fall when you begin writing a novel? Or does the novel unfold while you write?
I have story threads and themes that I’ve noted ahead of time. I usually have a sense of where my characters are personally and ways in which they might transform throughout the novel. But I never know at the outset how the book will end, nor do I ever stick to my original plan.
Which Spellman do you relate to the most? Do you have a favorite? Why or why not?
The obvious answer and the most honest one is Isabel. However, I relate to all of them in different ways. I relate to Rae’s indifference to social mores. I understand Olivia’s desire to enforce her desires on her mini-universe. And I completely comprehend Albert’s experience of having no control of those around him.
If you had a Spellman clan nickname, what do you think it would be and why?
You’ve said in a previous interview that you did some surveillance work yourself. What was the most exciting thing to happen to you while you were on a job?
I followed a lunatic who had apparently shot a priest (this may have been a rumor) and believed he (the lunatic, not the priest) was the true inventor of “bifurcated jeans” (which are just plain old blue jeans, but he made a point of writing “bifurcated” in some documents we found—that’s how I learned the word). During the surveillance, the subject dropped off in a cigar shop rather complicated drawings of an invention for a new kind of toilet that wouldn’t require toilet paper. It would, however, require a seat belt (this is true; I saw the drawings). Anyway, when I was surveilling this unusual fellow, I tailed him into a bar and overheard the barmaid say, “Joey, are you talking about killing people again?”
Demetrius’s “Crack Mix” sounds like, as Al says, “the best snack food in the history of snack food.” Where did you get the idea for this heavenly snack? Is it based in reality? If so, can you divulge the recipe?
I imagine Crack Mix to be the Chex Mix of the gods. Do I know what secret ingredients would make it that? No. But I will admit that I really like Chex Mix. And if anyone does have the recipe for Chex Mix of the gods, call me.
SpongeBob SquarePants made a few appearances throughout Trail of the Spellmans. Is it a guilty pleasure of yours?
Sometimes when I’m sick or depressed or both, I watch. And I don’t feel a tiny bit guilty about it.
Which character do you think has changed the most since The Spellman Files: Document #1?
That question is tough. I think the youngest characters were likely to change the most, since that’s the nature of growing up. But when I sit down and write each book, I want every character to change in the story. That’s what happens. People transform in some ways and they remain exactly the same in others. Often the thing you’d like to change the most about yourself is where you will forever remain stuck.
How was the experience of writing the fifth book in this series different than the experience of writing the first?
Actually, Document #5 was rough. While I had no intention of ending the series after The Spellmans Strike Again, I did close many doors in that book and, with the fifth one, I was opening a lot of doors and not finding anything behind them and then opening another door and another until I found something. It was a while before I found my stride. I’m very pleased with it, but it took a long time to figure out where I was going.
Do you have any idea of what’s in store for Isabel and the rest of the Spellman clan for the next book?
I have a few things up my sleeve. And I should probably transcribe them from my arm before my next shower.
Isabel has had her high points and her low points in each Spellman novel. If you could have a conversation with her face-to-face, what advice would you want to give her?
I’ve got no business giving advice to anyone. Even a fictional character.
 Not his real name.
Tips from Lisa Lutz on How to Navigate a Book Club:
I’m honored to have been chosen as S&S’s Something to Read About Book Club pick for January 2012. Here’s where I share an anecdote about some hilarious book club experience I had. Alas, I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a book club. If I were, I would probably be that person who never read the book and showed up just for the food and drink. If you’re like me, might I recommend the book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. That will give you some smart ways to navigate the book club experience.
Until you have a chance to read that book, I’ve assembled some handy phrases to get the unprepared member of a book club through her next meeting:
“I wasn’t feeling the ending.”
“What’s-her-name kind of annoyed me.”
“It was a masterpiece, I thought.”
“Pass the chips.”
“The dip is amazing.”
“I agree with what Suzie said.”
“[insert name of book] will stay with me a long time. “
Remember, there’s nothing worse than a book club meeting without drinks. Here’s my recipe for Magic Punch.
1 part vodka
1 part soda water
1 part limeade
1 package Lifesavers (red/green are excellent for the holidays)
 Make sure someone named Suzie is in book club.
- Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (May 21, 2013)
- Length: 416 pages
- ISBN13: 9781451608137
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Raves and Reviews
“Hilarious, but also tender and melancholy and full of hard-won wisdom. This one's going to stay with readers for a long time."
– Laura Lippman, author of I’d Know You Anywhere and the Tess Monaghan series
“Engaging….Lutz’s dry, biting humor is in full force.”
– Publishers Weekly
“A wise (and wise-cracking) choice for mystery readers seeking a break from the genre’s bloodier fare.”
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