The first casualty of a crime is often rational thought. People panic; emotions run wild. And in “Ripper,” Isabel Allende’s first attempt at writing a thriller, intelligent adults overlook the most obvious clues about what is happening, as even the police cease to act like professionals.
In fact, if it weren’t for one determined teenager and her unlikely cohort of online gamer friends, nearly 500 pages wouldn’t be enough to catch a serial killer in this overlong, strangely uninvolving book.
“Ripper” starts off with a bang. Immediately after its 16-year-old heroine, Amanda Martín, declares that her mother will be killed within a few hours, it flashes back to a gruesome murder in which the victim is not only shot but also sodomized with a baseball bat.
Like a crime scene report, the recounting of the murder gives the exact time and place where the body was discovered, and by whom. This level of detail borders on the extreme, giving the passage a tongue-in-cheek humor: “Normally the fourth-graders would run two laps around the basketball court to warm up, but this morning they came to a shuddering halt in the middle of the hall, shocked by the grisly sight.” It’s the kind of device Carl Hiaasen uses to parody our obsession with crime and our material, mundane concerns.
We then get to know Amanda and her friends, four other teens scattered around the globe who gather online to play a game called “Ripper.” Although the players originally met to uncover the real Jack the Ripper, Amanda, their games master, steers them toward the present-day murder in Amanda’s hometown of San Francisco. As other victims turn up, the group’s combined brain power will prove superior to anything law enforcement can manage.
This is an appealing setup. The writing style is jaunty and light. Amanda is the kind of classic amateur sleuth readers can identify with, and the knowledge that the crimes will soon turn personal — with the abduction of Amanda’s mother, Indiana — raises the stakes.
It’s the kind of kickoff an author of Allende’s stature should have had fun with. But soon after this promising opening, “Ripper” falls apart.
For starters, there’s all that detail. While the crime-scene description serves a purpose, Allende never dials it back. Every character has such an in-depth back story that the plot stalls, as she goes on asides about Latino gangs or a dog’s war history.
In addition, little of that background does much to distinguish what are fairly standard stereotypes. Indiana, for example, is a buxom blonde naïf, torn between a wealthy, aging libertine and a stoic but haunted former Navy SEAL.
Her ex, Bob, Amanda’s father, is a cop, “born to wear a uniform, to carry a gun, to wield authority.” Even the killer is eventually revealed as more a mash-up of clichés than a believable villain.
And both of these so-called adults seem to have huge, conveniently placed blind spots. Bob, for example, feels no compunction about sharing crime-scene info with his sleuthing teenage daughter.
And Indiana, a masseuse-healer who is supposedly almost mystically tuned in to her patients’ bodies, somehow misses that one of them may be masquerading as another.
The only real mystery here is how such a tedious and disjointed book came to be written by such a well-respected writer. In fact, the only signs of Allende’s much lauded magical realism surfaces in the stereotypical Latinas of Bob’s family, as when his grandmother stares at the pregnant Indiana and declares, “in perfect English . . . ‘The baby you are carrying is a girl. Make sure you give her a good Catholic name.’ ”
Speaking to NPR last month, Allende stated that she is “not a fan of mysteries” and that she read “the most successful ones on the market” to prepare for writing “Ripper.” That attitude may explain why the author took so little care to create either realistic characters or a consistent plot for her genre debut. These lapses, however, will ensure that “Ripper” does not join the ranks of those she so sloppily copied.
Clea Simon is the author of 14 crime novels. She can be reached at email@example.com.