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"Mom is still alive, but she's going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday." The opening line of bestselling author Isabel Allende's new novel, “Ripper,” is every bit as dramatic and gripping as the start of a murder mystery should be. Yet this is not your typical thriller. For Allende, known for her historical fiction and magical realism, crime fiction is unfamiliar territory. “Ripper” was intended to be a collaboration with her husband, crime writer William C. Gordon, but, according to Allende in the book's acknowledgements, “within twenty-four hours it was clear the project would end in divorce.” Allende took the idea and ran with it, and created a compelling novel, but it's clear that she creates her best work when she sticks to her typical genres.
Unlike many thrillers, “Ripper” is driven far more by character than by a perfectly crafted plot. Character development has long been one of Allende's greatest strengths, and the cast of “Ripper” certainly does not disappoint. She presents Indiana Jackson, a gorgeous natural healer with boundless reservoirs of generosity; her daughter, Amanda, a brilliant but spoiled high school senior obsessed with an online crime-solving game; and Amanda's father, Bob Martin, a former high school jock who now heads the homicide division of the San Francisco Police Department. Allende's characters are complex, intricately interconnected, and endowed with rich backstories. Even minor characters—the circle of misfit teenagers Amanda meets online to solve crimes, Amanda's strict Catholic grandmother who runs the family tortilla factory, the pot-smoking painter who lives on the roof of Indiana's clinic—are intriguing and well realized. Collectively, they are a bit too quirky to be quite realistic, even in a city as eclectic as San Francisco; Allende has chosen to trade a small amount of plausibility for the ability to explore a fascinating set of personalities.
Compelling as these characters are, they often threaten to overwhelm a somewhat lackluster plot. The novel's central events, a series of ritualistic murders and their investigation by both the SFPD and Amanda's circle of friends, are stranded in a sea of (admittedly interesting) backstory. Overall, Allende lacks the feel for suspense and pacing necessary for crime fiction—while the novel's last quarter is rife with tension, the preceding portion presents the killings and investigations casually, as just another curiosity in the characters’ intricate lives. The character drama sometimes lacks suspense as well, as Allende frequently drops details of their futures into the text—for instance, introducing a character as “Bradley, Amanda's future boyfriend.”
Beyond just the change in genre, Allende’s fans will notice stylistic differences between this and her previous works. “Ripper” is characterized by plain, literal language, a stark contrast to the lyricism of Allende's other works. This could be attributed in part to the translation from Spanish—often it seems that the word choice is more formal or technical than necessary—yet there does seem to be a broader stylistic shift, perhaps in an attempt to adopt a straightforward, investigative tone suited to a murder mystery. While initially unexpected, this new linguistic style is ultimately effective; Allende still manages to create extensive, beautifully detailed descriptions, and the plainer language helps to keep the story readable where it might outherwise have gotten bogged down in the characters’ ample backstories.
Despite its initial shortcomings, the plot of “Ripper” comes together in an exciting and well-executed ending, striking just the right balance of surprise—unexpected, but not outside of the realm of possibility. Attention to the massively complex web of characters begins to pay off as it becomes clear exactly how various initially disparate pieces of backstory fit together. Suspense builds as the clues finally begin to make sense and a rescue mission unfolds side by side with the killer's life story. The prevalent motifs of family, community, memory, injustice, abuse, and psychological trauma combine to form the vividly realized psyche of the killer.
It is ultimately Allende's ability to develop such unique and psychologically complex characters that drives “Ripper” forward; the carefully constructed personality of the killer gives meaning to the meandering investigation and character drama that comprise the majority of the book. It is fascination with the larger-than-life characters, rather than a traditionally suspenseful thriller plot, that makes the novel engaging. Likewise, a nuanced and perceptive treatment of inequality, injustice, and abuse, another of Allende's strengths, redeems the slight plot flaws. These assets save “Ripper” from being just another amateur crime novel, yet it is not appealing for the attributes that typically make good crime fiction. While “Ripper” is an enjoyable read and a generally successful novel, it is also an experiment with mystery writing—one that suggests Allende's prodigious talents are most effectively used in the genres with which she is most familiar.
—Staff writer Miriam M. Barnum can be reached at email@example.com.
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