I received this book for free from the publisher / TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Ripper by Isabel Allende
Published by Harper on January 28, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Source: the publisher / TLC Book Tours
Goodreads | Amazon
When I was offered Ripper by TLC Book Tours, I was really looking forward to reading it. Isabel Allende is well-known in the world of literary fiction and I’d heard lots of good things about her books. She had never written a mystery novel before, but Ripper sounded really cool: it takes place in San Francisco; Amanda is seventeen years old; her mother is an holistic healer; her grandfather is her best friend; her father is the deputy chief of homicide for the San Francisco Police Department; her godmother is a famous astrologer in California; and Amanda sets out to solve a string of murders that are taking place in the Bay Area. Amanda seems to be fascinated by violent crime–she, her grandfather, and a small group of teenagers from around the globe get together online to play a role-playing game called “Ripper,” based on Jack the Ripper’s time in England. When the murders start (supposedly foreseen by her astrologer godmother), Amanda takes the role-playing game from 1888 into 2012 (with the consent of the other players) so they can work on solving the modern-day killings.
Sounds pretty cool, right? Teenage RPGer-turned-crime-solver, interesting-sounding characters, murder mystery…I thought this would be a really good book coming from an author like Isabel Allende.
Before I get into why I was disappointed with Ripper, let me be clear on something: her interview on NPR has nothing to do with how I feel about the book. I know a lot of folks are upset about some of the things she said about readers and the crime/mystery genre in general, but I couldn’t care less what any author thinks of me or the books I read. I’m not angry or bitter (although the readers who are have every right to be, really)–this review has not been tainted by Allende’s careless words.
So. During the course of the interview on NPR, Allende talks about why she chose to write a mystery/crime novel and she says this (source: NPR interview linked above):
The book is tongue in cheek. It’s very ironic … and I’m not a fan of mysteries, so to prepare for this experience of writing a mystery I started reading the most successful ones in the market in 2012. … And I realized I cannot write that kind of book. It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people. Very entertaining, but really bad people. So I thought, I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke. My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd. My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.
Allende claims the book is a joke because she found she couldn’t write that kind of book. And by “couldn’t write,” I take it to mean that she just couldn’t bring herself to write that kind of book because she dislikes them so much. Hey, great. I’m glad she’s not going in for the stereotypical characters found in lots of mysteries. That’s cool. I like the thought of a teenage protagonist in a book for adults. I like the sound of the other…free-spirited…characters.
What I think actually happened was that Allende knew she’d written a book that isn’t all that good, and she decided to play it off as a joke so she had an excuse. “Oh, this funny thing? Yeah, I didn’t take it seriously at all when I was writing it. It was just a joke. That’s why it’s not up to my usual standards.”
Mmmhm. [side eye]
Here’s the thing: Ripper could have been a really good book. The premise makes it sound like something I would enjoy. But it fell flat, big time.
For the first almost 200 pages, the book is all over the place. It takes that long for things to start connecting and coming together and for the real action to finally start.
The characters don’t get developed all that much. Didn’t care about any of them. Not even Amanda, who I think would be an amazing young woman in real life.
Lots of the story is wholly unbelievable. For example, Amanda’s father is the deputy chief of the homicide division of the SFPD (as I mentioned already), and he has no problem letting his teenage daughter and his father-in-law look through all the case files, police reports, and autopsy reports dealing with the recent murders (which they then share with the other players of “Ripper”). And he keeps them up to date with everything going on concerning those murders. In fact, he enlists their help because he can’t seem to solve the murders on his own. Oh. Now, I understand that young folks tend to have better imaginations than adults and so may be better equipped to solve mysteries, but there must be a reason why Amanda’s dad is the DEPUTY CHIEF OF HOMICIDE. How did he get there if he doesn’t have the imagination he needs to do his job well? Huh. And do officers of the law often share that kind of information–in detail–with civilians? I find that so hard to believe.
There are more than a few contradictions in the book. Example: Amanda’s dad thinks to himself that crime is her true calling–he knows she’d make an excellent lawyer, detective, etc. He’s known this about her since she was born. Two pages later, he’s hoping that her fascination with crime will pass and that she’ll become interested in something else…but he keeps sharing the case information with her and doesn’t ask her to stop researching. Okay, I understand that as a parent, you can admit that your kid’s true calling is crime and also want them to find something safer to do. But that’s not exactly how it reads in the book taken in context–it just sounds like Allende is contradicting herself.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. At least 150 pages could have been cut from this book without hurting the story. So many ideas are repeated over and over (some of them nearly verbatim) that I wondered if Allende was being paid by the word.
Short version: Ripper just isn’t a good book. But it could have been, and that’s what disappoints me the most. It’s really more like (poor) literary fiction with some mystery/crime elements tossed in, and if Allende had set out to do that in the first place and really developed the literary fiction aspect of it, I think it would have been great. But she was just joking around, so I shouldn’t take any of my complaints too seriously…right?