Lovers of magical realism, listen up:
The King (Gabriel García Márquez) may be dead, but don’t hail the Queen (Isabel Allende) just yet.
In the afterword to her latest novel, the prolific Allende states that she has explicitly “weeded out” all traces of magical realism from the book. (She apparently had her son go over the manuscript to do the needful gardening.). Allende wants this book to stand apart distinctly from her other work … and no doubt from what faithful readers have come to expect from the author of well loved books like Eva Luna, The House of the Spirits and The Island Beneath the Sea.
In that endeavor, she succeeds. Ripper is a story about a serial killer, in the vein of those gory Swedish crime thrillers that became so fashionable with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
The work may feel completely uncharacteristic of Allende (although she did venture into the criminal underworld in her 2013 novel, Maya’s Notebook), but it’s a compelling story. Even the most diehard magical realism aficionados would have to admit so.
Ripper takes place in San Francisco and spans a series of gruesome, seemingly standalone crimes that take place around the life of Indiana Jackson, a voluptuous massage therapist whose natural beauty renders men weak in the knees. The crimes, it later transpires, actually connect. They’re the work of a serial killer, according to Indiana’s daughter, 17-year-old Amanda Martin, an oddball teenager interested in offbeat things.
Amanda serves as the Games Master for Ripper, an online sleuthing game played by a rag-tag group of weird adolescents scattered over the globe. Like Amanda, they have a lurid interest in gory crimes.
These crimes connect to Indiana.
At Amanda’s behest, the team takes it upon themselves to investigate. Helped by Amanda’s grandfather, Blake Jackson (online screen name: Kabel), who also plays the Ripper game (presumably to keep track of his granddaughter’s online activities), the group gets information from Amanda’s father, San Francisco deputy chief of police Bob Martin. Bob had a brief but heady teenage love affair (and marriage) with Indiana.
For this reader/Allende fan, things start to fall apart here. I mean, do cops really share classified information—especially information so sordid—with their kids?
Yes, we know kids these days come out of the womb with the Internet gene. We know they’re more tech-savvy than previous generations. But does their online gaming prowess really make them that smart? Smart enough to solve a mystery even the most experienced police officers cannot?
Unless Ripper sneaks from the shadows as a crime thriller for teens (and Allende has written for that demographic before), casting teens as star sleuths makes little sense. The book falls a bit short for the rest of us.
Allende, of course, writes with extreme skill, so even if this represents her first stab at the gory crime/serial killer genre, she successfully keeps up Ripper’s pace and creates suspense along the way. She ably leads readers down the wrong path, meaning you won’t guess whodunit until the end of the book.
Ultimately, though, we discover the real crime scene: Ripper’s disappointingly weak conclusion. It simply doesn’t tie up the motive for the crimes and how the criminal connects with Amanda and Indiana.
We can assume Allende probably lacks a few critical genes of her own: those of a true crime writer. She may not want to revisit the genre.
She does, however, make up for weaknesses with glowing examples of writing at which she truly excels: Rich, multi-dimensional characters. Fabulous backstories. (Indiana stands out, the most colorful and interesting among a cast of characters that includes a Navy SEAL, a former Uruguayan spy and a matriarch who commands a thriving taco empire.)
In this way, through these characters, Ripper gives us vintage Allende … even without the magical realism.
Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a freelance writer based in State College, PA. Her articles have appeared in Saveur, Vogue (Mumbai, India edition), CNN.com, Business Week and Dr. Oz’s Youbeauty.com, among others. She co-authored Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the New Consumer-Led Marketplace (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and is currently working on a novel.