Trail of the Spellmans: Reading Group Guide
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 at math professor Walter Perkin's immaculate apartment; suspicious parents hire the firm to follow their daughter, though her only suspicious activities seem inexplicably tangled with Rae's; and two clients' surveillance requests present the Spellmans with a conflict of interest, causing Isabel's father to enact a "Chinese wall of privacy." But there isn't a wall big enough to keep Isabel out when she puts her mind to tearing it down, and she soon learns that she was right about one of her client's dishonest intentions.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
- 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?
- In the early chapters of the novel, Isabel spends time discussing her opinion of "Old David" versus her opinion of "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?
- 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 just a genuine scientific inquiry?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- How did you react to Isabel's relationship with Henry? Did you suspect that their relationship was coming to an end? What characteristics do you think a man Isabel could be with permanently would need to have? What do you think she is looking for?
- Do you think Albert's installment of the "Chinese wall" is helpful or hurtful to the family's work? Isabel makes clear how she feels about it; why do you think she so strongly opposes it?
- Isabel is notoriously skeptical of and slow to trust people she doesn't know; however, she chooses to place her trust in Charlie Black. Why do you think this is? What does Isabel like about Charlie? Do you think the Slayter case would have ended differently without him?
- 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?
- "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 times in the novel do you think Isabel is fighting becoming an adult? At what times does she embrace the transition?
- 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?
- 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 of being a personal investigator. Do you think she did the right thing, or should she have remained neutral?
- If you've read Lisa Lutz's previous four Spellman novels, discuss: Which one is your favorite? Why?
Enhance Your Book Club
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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?
- Lisa may be available to call in to your book club discussion. You can email your request for a call-in 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?"
Demetrious'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 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 in the series?
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.