Isabel Allende is a literary force to be reckoned with. Almost everything she writes turns into a bestseller, including her fiction (12 works to date), memoirs (four) and works of young adult fiction (three). Worldwide, her books have sold more than 60 million copies. What worlds are left to be conquered when you’re this much of a colossus? Allende’s answer is elementary: thrillers. Like J.K. Rowling, whose first whodunit, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” appeared this past spring, Allende has decided to get out of her already capacious comfort zone and try her hand at a straight suspense plot. The result is an ornate serial-killer tale with the rather tired title of “Ripper.”
Allende (again, like Rowling) seems to want to send up the mystery tradition as much as she wants to stake her claim to it. Throughout “Ripper,” she tosses out coy references to masters of the genre, such as Stieg Larsson, Dashiell Hammett and Arthur Conan Doyle. Allende’s gargantuan cast of characters (and suspects) is every bit as eccentric as ye olde villagers in any classic Golden Age cozy. There’s a diminutive female police detective and martial-arts expert named Petra Horr, who dyes her cropped hair “so it looked like a foxtail,” a Croatian soothsayer whose astral charts aid the police, and a supporting slew of aroma therapists, homeopaths, Reiki masters and acupuncturists — this story takes place in contemporary San Francisco, after all.
The chief investigators here are a group of misfit kids from around the world who connect via an Internet crime game, also called “Ripper.” One of those kids, 16-year-old Amanda Jackson, happens to be the daughter of San Francisco’s deputy homicide chief, a guy who (improbably) discloses to his daughter the inside dope on a slew of grisly murders terrorizing the city. Amanda’s mother — who’s divorced from Detective Loose Lips — is named Indiana. She’s a holistic New Age healer: “a tall, voluptuous blond . . . with the looks of an inflatable doll.” Given that description, it comes as no surprise that Indiana is the object of desire for pretty much everyone in this novel, including the deranged killer. While Allende’s plot is decoratively spattered with blood, she otherwise follows the Agatha Christie polite approach toward murder: She stuffs her story with a lot of corpses whose outlandish deaths mostly take place in the wings.
Spice, not suspense, turns out to be Allende’s signature contribution to the standard serial-killer tale. Indeed, so hot and heaving are the love scenes in “Ripper” that “Bodice-Ripper” would have been a more apt title. Most of the story focuses not on the race to track down the homicidal maniac but on the less urgent question of which of her suitors Indiana prefers: Alan, a 50-ish roué whose family owns vast chunks of San Francisco, or Ryan, a reclusive former Navy SEAL maimed in body and soul by his wartime service. The rivals vie for Indiana’s affections, and so, we readers are regularly treated to fantasy interludes such as this one, where Indiana recalls a night when Alan whisked her off to a suite at the Fairmont Hotel:
“Ah, the perfumed water, the vast cotton towels, the perfectly chilled wine, the exquisite food, the loving caresses. . . . Once, after they had watched ‘Cleopatra’ on television . . . she mentioned that the best thing in the movie was Cleopatra bathing in milk. Alan had leaped out of bed . . . and reappeared half an hour later . . . carrying three boxes of powdered milk that he emptied into the Jacuzzi so that she could bathe like a Hollywood pharaoh.”
Contrasted with the luxurious decadence offered by Alan, working stiff Ryan offers Indiana the rough delights to be found in the back of his truck: “She clung to Ryan now, holding him down with both hands and kissing him until he gasped for breath — surprised at the softness of his lips, the taste of his saliva, the intimacy of his tongue, frantically trying to take off her jacket, sweater, and blouse without breaking the kiss.”
As these passages suggest, there’s a heck of a lot more Harlequin than Hammett to be found on the pages of “Ripper.” Allende does conjure up a genuinely surprising twist at the end, but by then, most smart readers will be trying to cleanse all memory of this tedious romp, perhaps by sinking down, down, down into bathtubs of powdered milk.
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne
Harper. 478 pp. $28.99