Isabel Allende's novel Ripper is many things - an unusual take on the crime thriller genre, a portrait of an intelligent young girl growing up in a violent world, an intricate and detailed study of the socially diverse communities of San Francisco, an exploration of obsession, possession and revenge.
Amanda Martin and her mother, Indiana Johnson, are at the centre of this novel. Amanda is a precocious, and from some of the many viewpoints in the novel, spoiled, teenaged girl with a fascination for murder. When not behaving like a typical, if intelligent and eccentric, teen, Amanda plays Ripper on the Internet: "The kids who played Ripper were a select group of freaks and geeks from around the world who had first met up online to hunt down and destroy the mysterious Jack the Ripper, tackling obstacles and enemies along the way. As games master, Amanda was responsible for plotting these adventures, carefully bearing in mind the strengths and weaknesses of the players’ alter egos." Having exhausted the mysteries of the Ripper crimes, Amanda and her associates - including her grandfather Blake Johnson - decide to research and try to solve a string of recent murders, aided by Amanda's access to unpublished details through her father, Bob Martin, the deputy chief of the personal crimes division of the San Francisco Police Department.
Indiana is a beautiful and warm-hearted, if somewhat naive, thirty-three year old with a distinctly bohemian view of life. Long divorced from Amanda's father after barely three years of a teenage shotgun marriage, Indiana is the epitome of the new-age cult of spirituality, sensuality and intuition. A Reiki massage therapist who also practices a range of holistic healing techniques from aromatherapy to nutritional counselling, Indiana is an object of desire for many of her clients - including Ryan Miller, a war veteran and amputee who has gained the friendship of both Indiana and Amanda - but is in love with Alan Keller, the scion of a wealthy society family, who showers her with gifts but never takes her home to meet his family.
Allende choses to begin the novel with one paragraph that tells the reader where Amanda, Indiana, and the narrative as a whole is headed:
"Mom is still alive, but she’s going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday,” Amanda Martín told the deputy chief, who didn’t even think to question the girl; she’d already proved she knew more than he and all his colleagues in Homicide put together. The woman in question was being held at an unknown location somewhere in the seven thousand square miles of the San Francisco Bay Area; if they were to find her alive, they had only a few hours, and the deputy chief had no idea where or how to begin.
Allende then dials the narrative back several months, to the beginning of the murders that Amanda and her online Ripper friends will try to solve, as the danger moves closer and closer to Amanda's real life.
Woven into the surface narrative threads of the Ripper crime-solving game and the real-life investigations by Bob Martin, Allende presents us with one finely crafted portrait after another of the large and diverse cast of characters that are in one fashion or another - like a literary version of six degrees of separation - connected to Amanda and Indiana. In these portraits are hidden subtle commentaries on the forces - often rife with violence - that shape lives.
For instance, consider the close juxtaposition in the text of the biographical summaries of two women, one Blake Johnson's housekeeper, the other, the glamorous former model who was married to one of the murder victims.
At forty-six, Elsa looked sixty. She suffered from chronic back pain, arthritis, and varicose veins, none of which stopped her being cheerful and singing hymns to herself wherever she went. Nobody had ever seen her wear anything but a blouse or a long-sleeved top, because she was ashamed of the machete scars she’d suffered in the attack when soldiers killed her husband and two of her brothers. She had arrived in California at the age of twenty-three, alone, having left four young children in the care of relatives in a border town in Guatemala; she worked around the clock to send money to support them, then brought them to California one by one—riding on train roofs at night, crossing Mexico in trucks, and risking their lives to get over the border along secret roads. She was convinced that if life as an illegal immigrant was hell, staying in her own country was worse. Her oldest son had joined the military in hopes of making a career and getting American citizenship. He was now on his third tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had not seen his family in two years, but in the brief phone calls he was allowed, he sounded content. Her two daughters, Alicia and Noemí, had an entrepreneurial streak and had managed to get themselves work permits; Elsa was sure that they would keep making progress, and that if the future was bright and there was an amnesty for immigrants, they would become permanent residents. The two girls ran a cohort of undocumented Latino women who wore pink uniforms and cleaned houses. They drove their employees to work in trucks just as pink, with “Atomic Cinderellas” emblazoned on the bodywork.
Though she still looked twenty-five, Ayani was about to turn forty, and her long career as a model was over; fashion designers and photographers grow tired of seeing the same face all the time. Ayani had lasted longer than most because the public recognized her. As a black woman in a white woman’s profession, she was exotic, different. Bob imagined she would still be the most beautiful woman in the world at seventy. For a time Ayani had been one of the world’s highest-paid models, the toast of the fashion world, but that had ended five or six years ago. Her income had dried up, and she had no savings; she’d spent her money like it was going out of style, as well as continuing to support her family back in their village in Ethiopia. Before she married Ashton, Ayani had juggled credit cards, taking loans from friends and from banks to keep up appearances. She was still expected to dress as she had when designers had given her their clothes for free, to attend parties and nightclubs with A-list celebrities. She duly showed up in a limousine wherever she could be photographed, but lived modestly in a studio apartment at the unfashionable end of Greenwich Village. She had met Richard Ashton at a gala fund-raiser for the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation, at which she gave the opening address. This was something she knew a lot about, and she took every opportunity to expose the true horrors of the practice—she herself had been a victim of it in her childhood. Ashton, like everyone else at the gathering, had been moved by Ayani’s beauty, and by her openness in describing her ordeal.
Despite her apparent privilege, Ayani's origins are no less traumatic than Elsa's. As she says:
I was born in a village of mud huts, and I spent my childhood carrying water and tending goats. When I was eight, a filthy old woman cut me, and I almost died of hemorrhage and infection. When I was ten, my father started looking for a husband for me among other men of his age. I only escaped a life of backbreaking work and poverty because an American photographer spotted me and paid my father to let me come to the United States.
In just a few paragraphs, Allende brings to our minds the world that so many women in the developing nations inhabit, one where colonialism and a male-dominated society leave women vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Yet there is such a contrast between these two women's escape from such conditions. One, through an accident of birth called beauty, finds herself in privilege, the hardships of her childhood smoothed away behind a face that seems younger than her years, the other aged beyond her years by work, sorrow, and the insecurities of being an undocumented worker in America.
Through portraits such as these, of characters who in some way intersect with the lives of the protagonist and her circle of family and friends, Allende's novel goes beyond the nature of the thriller novel to dissect the culture in which the subjects of the genre exist and thrive. Violence - from the murders themselves, to gang wars and illegal dogfighting, to memories of SEAL ops and collateral damage done in the hills of Afghanistan, to institutional cruelty and child abuse - is the dark and ever-present underside of the teaching nuns, the vholistic healers, the vibrant drag queens, the dedicated police officers, the upper crust families that Allende also portrays.
And when the game is fully afoot and the revelations start to come one after another, the final hunt for the serial killer and the final victim is as suspenseful and surprising as any crime triller reader could wish for.