Isabel Allende: Ripper, review

Isabel Allende, Ripper (Fourth Estate, £12.99, 478 pp.)

Some literary writers have patronizing attitudes to genre. John Banville, who writes crime-fiction as Benjamin Black, has said he produces just 100 words a day as a literary novelist, but a couple of thousand as Black. Crime-writing is easy was his subtext. Isabel Allende’s 1982 debut, The House of the Spirits, introduced millions to magic-realism. Her subsequent sprawling tales of love in historical settings have a devoted readership. But on the basis of Ripper, it appears Allende too thinks crime-fiction is a lesser occupation, as the essentials of the genre – narrative drive, plot development, structure, even suspense – all elude her.

Indiana is a reiki healer, whose annoying tics – ‘she visualized a stream of sidereal dust falling from some distant point in the cosmos’ – the author seems to find charming. She also looks, we are several times told admiringly, like a blow-up sex-doll, and she has a part-time rich lover, Keller, as well as the devotion of Ryan, a war-traumatized Navy SEAL. Her daughter is game-master for an online role-playing investigation into a series of murders, together with her grandfather, and aided by her father, a police chief.

A murder and disappearance in this group has possibilities, but Allende ignores the very basics. The murder occurs only three-quarters of the way through the book, until when her characters pass the time by telling each other things they already know, leaving narrative suspense to portentous voice-overs: ‘It was then she saw the article that would turn her life upside down’.

With the action finally underway, ten pages from the end in a race-to-the-death scenario, she is still moseying along, stopping for a chat about the effects of Prohibition on California wineries. Meanwhile she has drawn situations of astonishing implausibility: a crime expert who hasn’t heard of tasers, police who, after a body is found, contact the victim’s secret girlfriend instead of his family. And no one, apparently, has noticed that mobile phones have caller-ID.

One wonders if Allende was concentrating. ‘He had to persuade Bob, who couldn’t say no to him’: if he couldn’t say no, was persuasion necessary? ‘From a distance – and indeed from up close’: how about ‘from everywhere’? Scenes are repeatedly set up, then broken into by a back-story before returning, often in identical words, to the set-up. It’s like reading in a cave with an echo.

If the characters were interesting, all this might be forgivable. But the clichés come, as Allende would no doubt write, thick and fast: Indiana is ‘the only woman ever to captivate’ Keller, Ryan is a ‘fish out of water’, the police chief has a ‘trusty assistant’ (later someone wears ‘trusty jeans’, too, which makes you wonder). Every page is spattered with vagueness masquerading as description: ‘delicious’ smells, ‘a typical day’, a character’s ‘perfect’ features.

All that’s left is inadvertent comedy. Whenever the Navy SEAL appears, the book practically sits up and salutes. Ryan might be a murderer, but only an honourable one: he ‘would have confronted his rival, given him the opportunity to defend himself.’ The publisher has missed a trick here, because this is the perfect place to embed a microchip that plays ‘God Bless America’ as the page is turned.

First published in The Times