Why???? we all asked when my father broke the news. A family disappearance/corporate retreat/camping trip all rolled up into one. Surely it was a bad idea, I suggested. The sentiment was reaffirmed by Rae with her constant references to the Donner Party and repeated inquiries as to which one of the Spellmans plus guest would most likely be consumed first (should it come to that). The third time this particular line of inquiry rolled around, my mother sent Rae to her room.
• • •
If all of this is confusing you, perhaps I should give you a quick refresher course on the Spellmans. Although I highly recommend reading the first three documents1 if you want a true understanding of what is really going on here.
My father is Albert Spellman, a onetime cop turned private investigator who really likes lunch. He is happily married to Olivia Spellman, my mother and co-owner of Spellman Investigations. Mom is an extremely attractive woman—although lately people have been adding the disclaimer “for her age,” which has started to get under her skin. Other than my mom’s mild vanity, her most obscene characteristic is that she seems to think meddling in her children’s lives is an Olympic event. Her training regimen is positively brutal.
Albert and Olivia have three children. The oldest is my brother, David, thirty-four: Formerly a poster boy for the all-American corporate male, currently an out-of-work human being. I’m the middle child. Isabel, thirty-two, if you didn’t catch it already. My MO from fifth grade until my midtwenties was that of the problem child. The “student” the principal knew by name, the neighbors feared, and the pot dealers counted on to stay afloat. Also, in the interest of honesty, there were a few arrests thrown into the mix—two (or four, depending on how you’re counting) as recently as two years ago, which I guess means that I can’t argue that my problem years were confined to my youth or even my twenties. But it’s important to note that I’ve come a long way. Therapy helped, and I’m big enough to admit it was court ordered.
About six months ago, after years of doubt about my future with Spellman Investigations, I committed to the job completely and agreed to slowly begin taking over the business from my parents so they can retire and learn to do macramé2 or something. My father likes to say the seeds of adulthood have been planted. He’s just waiting for them to take.
There’s only one other Spellman to speak of—Rae—and I’ll mostly let her speak for herself because you might not believe me otherwise.
I suppose the most defining characteristic of my family is that we take our work home with us. If your family’s job is investigating other people, you inevitably investigate each other. This single trait has been our primary point of conflict for most of my life.
Finally, to round out the players on this unfortunate camping trip, I should mention Maggie. Maggie Mason, girlfriend to brother David. Maggie is a defense attorney who used to date Henry Stone (that’s a whole other story I don’t really want to get into right now, okay?), who happens to be the “best friend”3 of my now seventeen-year-old sister, the briefly aforementioned Rae. Henry is a forty-five-year-old police inspector and Rae is a senior in high school. They’re an unlikely duo. Rae met Henry when she was fourteen and I guess she decided that they were kindred spirits. However, on the surface (and beneath the surface) they have nothing in common. At the start, Henry endured Rae. Then he got used to her. Then, when Henry was dating Maggie and Rae went to supernatural lengths to sabotage their relationship, Henry cut Rae off completely. Now they have found peace. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I don’t get involved anymore.
After Maggie and Henry broke up, over half of the Spellman clan vetted Maggie and determined that she was a quality human, the kind of person that the Spellman circle sorely needed. After an appropriate amount of time passed, the matchmaking plans for Maggie and David were successfully enacted. The couple had only been together about two months at the point of this camping trip, but since Maggie is the only person we know who can make fire from a flint, can pitch a tent, can use a compass, and actually owns bear spray, we thought it wise for our own personal safety to bring her along. That and David refused to come unless she accompanied him.
Now picture me in the predawn hours, in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the Russian River, in the middle of nowhere, sharing a tent with my much younger sister, Rae, who had spent the past two days either trying to get cell phone reception, complaining about the mosquitoes, or “sleeping,” during which time she carried on lengthy conversations about . . . well, honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I caught phrases like “I’ve been sworn to secrecy,” “Not in this lifetime,” and “You’ll find the treasure at the bottom of the gorge.” I might have been able to sleep through her babbling if she weren’t a nighttime thrasher and kicker. And so, once again, there I was, sleep deprived, trapped with family, waiting for the nightmare to come to an end. My life in a nutshell.
On the morning before our return-home date, I gave up on sleep, knowing that this was my last full day in the wild. When I exited my tent, my father was trying to make coffee and failing miserably. He appeared glad for company since my mother was still slumbering in their tent.
“What am I doing wrong?” he asked.
“Strong-arming your family into a cruel and unnecessary nature excursion,” I suggested.
“No,” Dad replied. “What am I doing wrong with the coffee?”
“You don’t stick the coffee in the pot and boil it with the water, Dad. Are you brain-dead? You just boil the water first and use the French press Maggie brought. Weren’t you watching her yesterday?” I replied with too much hostility.
My father tried to lighten the mood with the only joke he had in his arsenal this weekend.
“Why don’t you take a hike?” he said for about the thirtieth time.
“I’m going to dig a grave for that line and you’re going to bury it, Dad. I swear to you, if you say it one more time—”
“Maggie!” Dad shouted with way too much enthusiasm for waking hours. “Thank God you’re awake.”
Maggie smiled, approached the campfire, and took over the coffee making. Already the morning had improved. But the purpose of the trip had not yet been realized, and eventually we had to accept that this wasn’t simply a bonding experience for the Spellmans and friend, but something even more bizarre.
I should mention that no Spellman child had gone AWOL or refused to participate in the excursion since “business” was not to take place until the final day and, frankly, we all wanted our voice to be heard, even if it was heard above the buzz of mosquitoes. Also, I should mention that my parents said they would refuse to give a raise to anyone who didn’t participate in this bonding exercise. As for David, he was only there because he thought Maggie needed more quality time with the family, as a kind of cautionary lesson.
I suppose it’s time we get to business.
The First Annual Shareholders’ Meeting of Spellman Investigations, Inc.
[The minutes read as follows:]
ALBERT: Here, here. I call this meeting to order. Are all ye present?
DAVID: Dad, we’re not in old England. These are just shareholders’ minutes. State the date, the location, and the parties present.
OLIVIA: Isabel, are you recording?
ISABEL: Yes. And I’d like to put on record that we could have had this meeting in the comfort of our own home.
OLIVIA: Rae, what are you doing?
RAE: Making s’mores.
OLIVIA: It’s ten A.M., sweetie.
RAE: What’s your point?
OLIVIA: S’mores are not breakfast food.
ALBERT: Excuse me, I’m trying to have a meeting here.
RAE: Who’s stopping you?
ISABEL: Put the skewer down, Rae.
RAE: This is seriously the most torturous experience of my life.
ALBERT: Hello? Do I need to drag out the cowbell?
DAVID: Dad, if you do, I’m walking right now.
ALBERT: David, your presence here is necessary. I need you to draw up the minutes.
DAVID: You are aware of the fact that many small companies have minutes created without a meeting.
RAE: Oh my god, now you tell us!
ALBERT: We have actual business to conduct.
DAVID: Dad, you wanted a family vacation and used the threat of business to make it happen by refusing to give a raise to anyone who didn’t attend. You got your camping trip. Why don’t you just make your announcements, we’ll go for one last hike, and then we can get out of here.
ISABEL: I second that motion.
OLIVIA: Stop scratching, Rae! You’ll get scars.
RAE: Why haven’t we rid the planet of mosquitoes yet? If we can practically wipe out the ozone layer, I don’t see why these tiny bloodsuckers can’t be systematically destroyed.
MAGGIE: Put some calamine lotion on and then wait a minute or two. You should be fine.
ISABEL: Can we start the meeting already?
ALBERT: That’s what I’m trying to do.
OLIVIA: Who’s stopping you?
ALBERT: Quiet. Okay. Where was I? Okay, I call to order the first annual shareholders’ meeting of Spellman Investigations, Incorporated. Now what, David?
DAVID: We have already discussed the basic issues. On paper, Isabel is now vice president and owns 25 percent of the company. However, for the next few years Isabel, Mom, and Dad will run the firm together and will take a three-way vote if there are any disputes.
ISABEL: I know how that vote will turn out.
ALBERT: I don’t always agree with your mother, Isabel.
RAE: Let’s get to the whole reason we’re here. What’s our cost-of-living increase?
ISABEL: I should point out, Rae, that you don’t even pay for your cost of living.
OLIVIA: Let’s just go over our plans for the year, Al. We don’t need to drag this out any more than we have.
ALBERT: Oh, so now you’re turning on me too?
ISABEL: I would really like this “meeting”4 to begin so that it can eventually end.
DAVID: Here, here.
ALBERT: I thought you told me not to use that language.
RAE: I’m going to kill myself.
DAVID: Maggie, please step in.
[MAGGIE gets to her feet in front of the campfire and takes control of the room, so to speak.]
MAGGIE: What’s the first order of business?
ALBERT: We’ve started a retirement fund for Isabel and she gets a 5 percent salary increase. Same for Rae.
ISABEL: That’s not fair. I’m more important than Rae.
RAE: Excuse me?
OLIVIA: Rae’s entire raise will go into her college fund.
RAE: I quit.
MAGGIE: Next order of business.
ISABEL: I’d like my mother to stop harassing my boyfriend.
OLIVIA: I haven’t harassed him. I checked on his immigration status and I pay him a visit every now and again and ask him what’s he’s been up to.
ISABEL: Can you just leave him alone?
[Long pause while mother pretends to be concocting a plan she has already concocted.]
OLIVIA: I’ll make you a deal. Go on a blind date with a lawyer once a week and I will pretend that Connor does not exist.
ISABEL: Mom, that’s ridiculous.
DAVID: Yeah, Mom, that’s kind of weird.
OLIVIA: Once every other week.
ISABEL: I said no.
ALBERT: Once a fortnight.
OLIVIA: Al, quiet. Isabel, I really think you should accept my offer.
ISABEL: Why do you hate him so much?
MAGGIE: Next order of business.
OLIVIA: Sorry, Maggie. I don’t believe Isabel and I were through with our negotiations.
ISABEL: We were through.
OLIVIA: Every other week, I’d like you to go on a date with a lawyer or another professional. Then I’ll leave your boyfriend alone.
ISABEL: I think Connor would have more of an issue with me dating other men than with you harassing him. If that’s how you want to use your time, I guess I can’t stop you.
OLIVIA: Do you remember Prom Night 1994?
ISABEL: What are you getting at?
OLIVIA: I have pictures of you in that green dress with the puff sleeves and the tulle petticoat. The one Grammy Spellman made you wear.
ISABEL: Why don’t we talk about this later?
OLIVIA: Great. Then we can iron out the details.
DAVID: Fifty bucks.
ISABEL: What are you guys going on about?
DAVID: We’re bidding on those prom pictures. How come I’ve never seen them?
OLIVIA: That’s enough, everyone. Let’s get back to the meeting. Any other orders of business?
RAE: I’m going to work for Maggie part-time.
MAGGIE: Rae, remember what we talked about.
RAE: More like an unpaid internship. But I thought everyone should know.
OLIVIA: I think that’s an excellent idea.5
ISABEL: Me too. I guess when you’re independently wealthy you can afford to work for free.
RAE: I took a beating in the stock market this last year.
OLIVIA: What will you have her do?
MAGGIE: I’m going to have Rae help me review some pro bono cases I’m thinking about taking on. Preliminary research.
ALBERT: That sounds very educational.
RAE: Don’t try to ruin it for me.
ISABEL: Speaking of pro bono work, when are we going to start investigating Harkey?6
ALBERT: I don’t think now is the right time.
ISABEL: Why not?
OLIVIA: He’ll fight back, Isabel.
ISABEL: He already did. Do you think that audit last month was random?
OLIVIA: My point exactly. I was the one who had to spend three weeks pulling together two years of financial data.
ISABEL: So you’re just going to let him get away with it? Is that what I’m hearing?
ALBERT: This is not a good use of your time, Isabel. In this economy, we should be focusing on keeping our business afloat, not taking anyone down. Besides, we don’t even know if Harkey was behind the audit.
ISABEL: You’re kidding, right? The timing was impeccable. I run into Harkey at the liquor store, suggest that maybe he should watch his back, and the next thing you know the IRS is knocking on our door.
DAVID: Who goes around threatening people like that?
RAE: Isabel loves to threaten people.
ISABEL: Shut up. Back to the audit. Harkey started it, Dad.
ALBERT: Listen, Izzy, business is slow. Do you really want to waste our resources on a witch hunt?
ISABEL: I do. We know he’s crooked. If we can put him out of business, that cuts our competition by about 20 percent.
[ALBERT shakes his head, still undecided.]
ALBERT: He won’t just roll over, Isabel.
ISABEL: I’m ready for him.
[OLIVIA whispers in Albert’s ear; Albert nods his head.]
ISABEL: Maggie, is whispering allowed at an official board meeting?
MAGGIE: I don’t take sides with you people.
DAVID: “You people”?
MAGGIE: You know what I mean.
OLIVIA: Okay, we’ll make you a deal, Isabel. You accept now or we shelve this conversation for a later date. One, the Harkey investigation cannot take you away from your regular work, and two, you may not use more than $200 a month in company resources.
MAGGIE: Any other orders of business?
DAVID: I hope not.
RAE: One last thing. I request that we never do a group camping trip ever again.
ISABEL: Better than the threatened cruise.
RAE: It’s still torture.
ISABEL: At least you didn’t have someone kicking you all night long and shouting conspiracy theories.
DAVID: If that’s all, I call this meeting to a close.
ALBERT: I wanted to do that.
DAVID: Then go ahead, Dad. It doesn’t actually matter.
ALBERT: Maybe to you it doesn’t.
OLIVIA: Al, enough.
DAVID: [to Maggie] I hope you’re paying attention. Nothing about this morning has been out of the ordinary.
MAGGIE: Relax, David. I’m fine.
ALBERT: As president and CEO of Spellman Investigations, I call this meeting to a close.
RAE: I really do think people can die of boredom.
1 The Spellman Files, Curse of the Spellmans, Revenge of the Spellmans—all available in paperback!
2 The parental unit claims to have plans for their retirement, but so far none sound even remotely plausible.
3 Her words, not his.
4 Finger quotes.
5 Excellent for two reasons: 1) Business is a bit slow and so there’s not that much work for Rae anyway; 2) Mom wouldn’t mind another person with a graduate degree in the family.
6 An evil PI who needs taking down.
The Spellmans Strike Again
First among her priorities as head of Spellman Investigations is to dig up some dirt on the competition, slippery ex-cop Rick Harkey—a task she may enjoy a little too much. Next, faced with a baffling missing-persons case at the home of an aging millionaire, Izzy hires an actor friend, Len, to infiltrate the mansion as an undercover butler—a role he may enjoy a little much.
Meanwhile, Izzy is being blackmailed by her mother (photographic evidence of Prom Night 1994) to commit to regular blind dates with promising professionals—an arrangement that doesn’t thrill Connor, an Irish bartender on the brink of becoming Ex-boyfriend #12.
At Spellman headquarters, it’s business as unusual. Doorknobs and light fixtures are disappearing every day, Mom’s been spotted crying in the pantry, and a series of increasingly demanding Spellman Rules (Rule #27: No Speaking Today) can’t quite hold the family together. Izzy also has to decipher weekly “phone calls from the edge” from her octogenarian lawyer, Morty, as well as Detective Henry Stone’s mysterious interest in rekindling their relationsh . . . well, whatever it was.
Just when it looks like things can’t go more haywire, little sister Rae’s internship researching pro bono legal cases leads the youngest Spellman to launch a grassroots campaign that could spring an innocent man from jail—or land Rae in it.
The Spellmans Strike Again is hands down the most hilarious, thrilling, and moving book in this bestselling, award-nominated series. And it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Isabel Spellman, no matter how much she matures, will never be able to follow Rule #1: Act Normal.
Bestselling author Lisa Lutz reveals some of her previous Occupations
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
The wacky family of investigators is back for another installment of spying, secrets and sleuthing. In the fourth installment in the Spellman series, we find Isabel Spellman a little more grown up, moving into a shareholder role within Spellman investigations. Still, she faces opposition from an enemy PI, a nosy mother with a secret, a bothersome sister who always gets into trouble and many more colorful characters that Spellman fans have come to love.
The Spellmans Strike Back is the fourth installment in the critically acclaimed, bestselling, Edgar- and Macavity-nominated series by Lisa Lutz. The Spellman family is in the midst of another wild investigation, trying to maintain their private investigation business while at the same time keeping tabs on each other. This time, however, all of the Spellmans will have a little bit of growing up to do as they wrestle with issues of trust, family, life and death.
Discussion Questions< see more