'Ripper' By Isabel Allende. Harper, 496 pages, $28.99
Chilean author Isabel Allende's magical realism has earned her lyrical novels such as "The House of the Spirits" and "Of Love and Shadows" critical acclaim and solid spots on best-sellers lists.
But Allende's style fails her in her first crime novel. "Ripper" succumbs to an overwrought plot, weak characters and uninteresting details that derail the story.
Ripper is an online community of amateur sleuths around the world united to solve a series of bizarre killings in San Francisco. High school senior Amanda Martin leads the group, assisted by her pharmacist grandfather, Blake Jackson. The precocious Amanda is a brilliant student, bound for MIT, whose fascination with humanity's dark side apparently comes from her father, Bob Martin, the youngest deputy chief of the San Francisco Police Department's Homicide Unit.
Amanda's mother, Indiana Jackson, is the exact opposite of her ex-husband. A compassionate holistic healer, Indiana is a free-spirit, empathic to the clients who come to her for massage and aromatherapy, compassionate to others' suffering. She attracts ardent suitors but is unwilling to settle down either with her long-time wealthy boyfriend or a former Navy SEAL, physically and emotionally injured in battle.
When the killer ramps up his rampage, the online sleuths intensify their investigation.
The idea of an online community, even one led by a teenage whiz, banding together to try to catch a killer has made for some intriguing mystery fiction, going back to 1995 with Julie Smith's "New Orleans Beat." But the members of the Ripper group are too gleeful, eager for another murder to test their skills, which invalidates the seriousness of the plot.
Allende fills "Ripper" with an overdose of details about her characters, especially Indiana, yet the reader never really connects with any of them. Their back stories do nothing to advance the plot. Indiana is supposed to be so in tune with her patients and the people she meets, yet she shows little insight about several people in her inner circle. It's doubtful that a deputy police chief would share vital and confidential clues about a murder investigation to a civilian, especially his teenage daughter, no matter how bright she is.
The meandering plot's conclusion comes not as a compelling reveal but as a preposterous letdown.
Allende's brand of magical realism works well in her other inventive novels, but fails in this sluggish foray into crime fiction.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet the author
Isabel Allende will discuss "Ripper" during a conversation with journalist and writing instructor Anjanette Delgado at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 at Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus, Chapman Conference Center, 245 NE Fourth St., Miami. Vouchers, which include a copy of the novel, to attend this event must be purchased at a Books & Books store in Coral Gables (305-442-4408), Miami Beach (305-532-3222) or Bal Harbour (305-864-4241). For more information, visit booksandbooks.com.