Isabel Allende’s ‘Ripper’ is an unlikely thriller


Isabel Allende takes a break from her signature magical realism works for “Ripper,” her first thriller. (Isabel Allende)

Chilean author Isabel Allende is best known for her works of magical realism. Now, at 71, she’s taken a completely new direction with her first thriller, “Ripper,” out now ($28.99, Harper). Set in San Francisco (Allende’s adopted home) in 2012, the novel is about a holistic healer and her daughter, a bright yet introverted teen who spends her free time playing an online mystery game called “Ripper.” The girl’s hobby turns serious when her mom disappears.

“Ripper” came to be because your agent suggested you and your husband [crime novelist Willie Gordon] write a book together. Why didn’t you complete it together?
My husband writes in English. He has an attention span of 11 minutes. He doesn’t research much. Me, I write in Spanish, I can write for 11 hours, and I research thoroughly, so, I thought, I will end up writing the whole book, and he will get half the credit. No way.

You’re known as a magical realist author. Does “Ripper” fit into that genre?
It’s very funny because when astrology and that kind of stuff — crystals or aromatherapy — happens in Latin America, it is called magic realism. When it happens here, it’s called New Age. In the book, it’s tongue-in-cheek.

“Ripper” has some grisly murders. How did you come up with this stuff?
I attended a mystery writers’ conference. The questions from the students were unbelievable. Here’s an example: “If I inject a blood thinner to my victim and I stab her 13 times and hang her upside down in the shower, would the blood congeal on the bathtub?”

Aside from inventing gruesome crimes, what was most challenging about writing “Ripper”?
Keeping suspense. You have to plant clues, but you also plant red herrings. At the same time I wanted to … stick to the formula of the detective novel, but also make fun of it. That’s why my sleuth is not James Bond. My sleuth is an autistic nerdy kid with a hood.

You always start new books on Jan. 8. What’s the rest of your process like?
I sit down with a vague idea. Day by day, the story unfolds itself slowly. Sometimes I find myself in a dead end. I have to turn around and start again.

Must be a lot of revision.
Yes. But also I have discovered … that writing has an element of unconsciousness. If I am nervous, anxious, trying to follow a plan, then there’s no playfulness. I only enjoy it when the characters dance with me.

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Marissa Payne · January 28, 2014