The Chilean writer known for her exuberant magical realist novels featuring strong women characters (The House of Spirits, Eva Luna) has now ventured into serial-killer territory.
Set in San Francisco, Ripper begins with "The Case of the Misplaced Baseball Bat", a description of a gruesome murder scene: a school security guard is found dead by a class of fourth-graders, bent over a vaulting horse with a baseball bat stuffed into his rectum. Strong stuff indeed; but then Allende's previous works have not shied away from lurid violence, usually to make a political point.
The second half of the prologue hastily introduces an online sleuthing game called Ripper. Seventeen-year-old games master Amanda Martín suggests her cohorts across the world tackle this real-life murder case. Luckily enough for Amanda, she is right in the middle of the action: her father, Bob, is the investigating deputy chief of police and right at the beginning we learn that Amanda's mother, the fragrant Indiana of the healing hands, has disappeared, feared a potential victim of the killer. Amanda's parents have long since split and Indiana's boyfriends – one an ageing playboy, the other a disabled ex-navy Seal – are central players in the drama too, one ending up a murderee and the other a suspect for the series of deaths.
But hard-boiled detective story this ain't: once into the novel proper, Allende's distinctive characterisation methods come into play – detailed, extreme, each with a lengthy backstory, the result is a selection of characters that can strain the boundaries of reality. However, true to form it is Allende's women that engage: Amanda's mother, aromatherapist Indiana, is the heart of the novel. Amanda, although the engine of the plot, is less well drawn and substantially less sympathetic. It is only towards the middle of the novel that Allende gets into her stride and the interweaving threads begin to gain narrative drive and tension.
All in all, Ripper is a curious mix: a literary banquet overflowing with morsels of Nancy Drew, mouthfuls of Agatha Christie, a sprinkle of Barbara Cartland and dashes of James Patterson and Tom Clancy. But the "genre-busting" (that publishing buzzword) combination of detective story and romantic saga is likely to intrigue Allende fans. And while there are many places where Ripper reads like a half-polished experiment, what lingers is Allende's generosity with fictional detail, her warmth and humanity.