New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2014
Translated from the Spanish by Ollie Brook and Frank Wynne
Hardcover edition published in 2014 by HarperCollins Publishers
Originally published in Spain in 2014 by Random House Mondadori under the title El juego de Ripper
List of main characters:
Amanda Martín, creator of the online game Ripper
Bob Martín, Amanda’s father, deputy chief of homicide in the Personal Crimes Division, San Francisco
Blake Jackson, Amanda’s grandfather
Indiana (Indi) Jackson, Amanda’s mother, Reiki practitioner
Ryan Miller, client of Indiana Jackson, former Navy SEAL
Alan Keller, Indiana’s boyfriend
Pedro Alarcón, Ryan’s friend from Uruguay
Players in the online Ripper game:
Esmeralda (boy in New Zealand)
Sir Edmond Paddington (boy in New Jersey)
Abatha (girl in Montreal)
Sherlock Holmes (African American orphan)
I read the paperback edition of Ripper. The cover image above and all page references below are from the paperback edition. The list of characters is abbreviated, partly for the sake of convenience and partly to avoid giving away any additional details.
First, I have to confess that I have been a fan of Isabel Allende since a friend recommended her first book, The House of the Spirits, to me. I haven’t read all of her novels, and I never imagined that I would find one to call noir. But I think Ripper, about a serial killer in San Francisco, qualifies as noir literature.
(This blog post about the novel Ripper contains spoilers.)
The main character, Amanda Martín, is hardly a typical noir protagonist: Amanda is a high school student who decides to investigate a series of murders using the help of the players of an online game that she herself has created. The title of the novel comes from Amanda’s game, which she plays with four gamers (Esmeralda, Sir Edmond Paddington, Abatha, and Sherlock Holmes). When Celeste Roko, Amanda’s godmother and a famous California astrologer, predicts a bloodbath at the hands of a serial murderer in San Francisco (something that proves true), Amanda decides to use her own skills and the skills of her fellow gamers to solve the crimes. (Allende has brought noir right into the twenty-first century.) Amanda can also take advantage of the help offered by her grandfather, Blake Jackson, and her father, Bob Martín, who also happens to be the deputy chief of homicide in the Personal Crimes Division in San Francisco.
Aside from its title, the novel starts ominously, in noir fashion:
For the Ripper players, this first murder [the Case of the Misplaced Baseball Bat] was the start of what would become a dangerous obsession. . . . Up to this point the game had revolved around fictional nineteenth-century crimes in a fog-shrouded London where characters were faced with scoundrels armed with axes and ice picks, archetypal villains intent on disturbing the peace of the city. But when the players agreed to Amanda Martín’s suggestion that they investigate murders in present-day San Francisco—a city no less shrouded in fog—the game took on a more realistic dimension. . . . (pages 3–4)
Readers know right away that they, Amanda, and everyone she knows can expect danger ahead, which sets the right noir tone.
All of the main characters are multidimensional, and Allende makes sure that all of them have imperfections that could be interpreted as guilt or as a motive for murder. For example, Amanda’s mother, Indiana Jackson, is a Reiki practitioner who cares about her clients and barely charges them enough to pay her own bills. Allende offers the following description of her state of mind after treating one of her clients:
Indiana said good-bye to the man [Gary Brunswick], listened as his boots padded down the corridor toward the stairwell, then slumped into a chair and heaved a sigh, feeling drained by the negative energy that radiated from him, and by his romantic insinuations, which were beginning to seriously irritate her. In her job, compassion was essential, but there were some patients whose necks she longed to wring. (page 100)
This description is but one of many examples in which Allende insinuates a motive for murder. Before long, everyone could be a suspect. And it works. Even when I thought I had figured out who did what, more surprises were in store for me. I always enjoy novels and films that keep me guessing, and Ripper does not disappoint on that score.
Allende has a way of creating fully developed characters that I care about, and when they suffer the misfortunes that can happen to some people in real life, it’s a bit of a jolt. She remains true, however, to the plot and to the characters, which is something I have always admired about her writing. Ripper is thus not exactly an easy read, but the mystery is solved, and the characters reach some type of resolution. The novel is satisfying in the way that real life can sometimes be satisfying: In other words, the ending is satisfying, but the underlying angst of the human condition still lies just below the surface.