Isabel Allende's Island Beneath the Sea is one of my favourite books. (my review) I think she's brilliant when it comes to writing historical fiction. Her last novel, Maya's Notebook, (my review) was a contemporary piece with a teenage protagonist.
Ripper is Allende's latest novel and is again set in present day with a teenage protagonist.
Amanda and her five teenage online friends from around the world are part of a role playing game named Ripper. They investigate "fictional nineteenth century crimes in a fog-shrouded London where characters were faced with scoundrels armed with axes and icepicks, archetypal villains intent on disturbing the peace of the city."
When a famous astrologer (who just happens to be Amanda's godmother) predicts a "bloodbath" in Amanda's city (San Francisco) the young crime solvers move their focus to real time cases.
Okay, so that's the basic premise. It actually took me a bit to get into the novel. There are numerous characters and connections introduced in the first few chapters. I admit to feeling a bit confused as I tried to work out what the focus of the book was. Is it the murders? Or is it the story of Amanda's mother Indiana? Indi is a free spirited new ager who is torn between two lovers. There are many more storylines as the book continues - a few too many in my opinion. I usually enjoy Allende's in-depth study of her characters, but in Ripper I just felt overwhelmed.
Some of the relationships seemed odd, stilted and convenient. Amanda's father just happens to be the Deputy Police Chief of Homicide. Much of the Ripper players' knowledge is freely and easily obtained from him. ( I just never really bought the Ripper players - they seemed more of a prop than an effective part of the book.) Many of the (numerous) other characters are clichéd and overdrawn.
From the author's acknowledgements:
"This book was born on January 8, 2012 when my agent, Carmen Balcells, suggest to my husband, Willie Gordon, and me that we cowrite a crime novel. We tried, but within twenty-four hours it was clear the project would end in divorce. So he stuck to his own work - his sixth detective novel- while I shut myself away to write alone, as always."
I appreciate that an author would be interested in exploring something new and applaud Allende's foray into new genres. But, for this reader, Ripper was a bit of strange read. It was just way too busy and tried to do too much. There's the murder mystery, social commentary on war and the legal system, history, a love story, exploration of alternative therapies, new ageism, and more. The identity of the whodunit is well telegraphed despite the twist that Allende employs at the end. And the murderer's motive has been done many times before. (And the publisher's blurb of 'fast-paced mystery' misses the mark completely)
I still think Allende is a wonderful writer, but Ripper missed the mark for me. Read an excerpt of Ripper.