Isabel Allende is a petite 71-year-old woman who was born in Peru, where her father was the Chilean ambassador, grew up in Chile and then went into exile in the neighboring country of Venezuela, and now lives near San Francisco. She has written some 20 mesmerizing books in 30 years, novels of magical realism (1982's The House of the Spirits), four memoirs, four young adult books, and now -- one fabulous crime novel. She has sold 57 million books, less than Jackie Collins, but more than you or I.
Some months ago, two friends of mine, Richard Sparks and Jenny Okun, worked on an opera which was based upon one of her short stories. It fictionally followed the coup in 1973 Chile when her father's cousin, President Salvador Allende, was overthrown, and the dictator, Pinochet, came to power. I had the pleasure of meeting Allende backstage at Santa Monica's Broad Stage when she was with conductor Placido Domingo. When I recently heard that she had written her first crime thriller, I immediately ordered it from Amazon and, when it arrived this weekend, began reading -- and finished it after a two-day marathon.
Isabel Allende and Placido Domingo after "Dulce Rosa." Photo by Jay.
Ripper (Harper) is a wonderfully entertaining novel of which the New York Times, in its review this weekend, said: "This thoroughly charming book is the author's own eccentric notion of a murder mystery, and it is a lot of fun to read. Also, it features a teen-age sleuth...idiosyncratic of appearance, timorous of character but magnificent of mind (according to her besotted grandfather)...who is pretty much irresistible." (She, Amanda Martin, could be played by Elle Fanning, Dakota's kid sister, in the inevitable movie.)
My own favorite character is her divorced mother, Indiana Jackson, a beautiful, voluptuous, spiritual adult hippie, gifted healer who practices her curative arts of Reiki massage and aromatherapy in the North Beach Holistic Clinic (think of Cate Blanchett for this great role). Her daughter views the "white magic" of holistic healing as nothing more than hogwash. Allende describes Indiana thusly: "She measured happiness using a simple equation -- one good day plus another good day equals a good life."
At the start of the book, she is carrying on a long-time love affair with Alan Keller, a wealthy, snobbish guy, the scion of a socially-prominent family, while at the same time most of her male patients silently lust after her. Amanda's father is the Deputy Chief of Police, Bob Martin, who realizes that his astute daughter has more insight to the criminal mind than most of his own police force. I must admit that I initially looked askance at the fact that the policeman shared some intimate details of the killings with his daughter and her grandfather, but once I got past that the plot became even more fun and intriguing.
Amanda is game master of an internet group of five brilliant, kids, "a select group of freaks and geeks from around the world who had first met online to hunt and destroy the mysterious Jack the Ripper," and one adult (her grandfather, Blake Jackson) who are playing a game called "Ripper" which began examining the Victorian crime, but has quickly evolved into an examination of current (2012) San Francisco murders, of which recently there have been three.
These have been predicted by her godmother, Celeste Roko, the most celebrated astrologist in California: "There will be a bloodbath in San Francisco." Allende delightfully describes her: "She looked like Eva Peron, with a few extra pounds." Amanda sets out to disprove her: "It's a perfect opportunity to refute the predictive powers of the stars." The male lead in this exciting story is a scarred ex-Navy Seal, Ryan Miller, and his charismatic war dog, Attica. (Since I have spent several years developing a feature film about war dogs, this character really intrigued me). He is a pure-bred Belgian Malinois, "smarter and stronger than German Shepherds, and they keep their back straight so they don't suffer hip problems." Ryan, physically and spiritually wounded, is a patient of her mother and secretly in love with her. One reviewer commented that, "You realize that hatred lurks easily beneath infatuation, and that Indiana, for all her doofy charm, is actually surrounded by the jealous, the rejected and the flat-out insane."
Isabel Allende Photo from Harpers.
Last night I watched a YouTube of Isabel speaking to the Harvard Book Club, and it was revelatory and very funny. She told of how, when she told her agent she was thinking of retiring, the agent suggested she instead collaborate with her husband, mystery writer Willie Gordon, on a crime thriller. "A bad idea," she realized, when -- after three months of frustrating conversations -- she was ready to begin writing on January 8, the day she begins all of her novels. ("It was the day in 1981 that I sat down to write my dying grandfather a letter which became the manuscript of my first novel, The House of the Spirits," note: It became an international bestseller, a movie, was translated into 35 languages and set her on the path to being the most widely-read Spanish-language author.)
Only her husband was procrastinating and she realized she was on her own, so she began writing Ripper herself. "Someone told me that I had to open a murder story with a murder, so I did," she said. The murder in question is a school custodian found dead and mutiliated in a gym. Amanda, a senior in high school ready to enter MIT in the fall, enlists the support of her five Ripper cohorts to examine the details of the crime. Which is followed by a second, then a third gruesome murder, all examined in detail by the young people as well as the police and public. The kids intuitively realize that the three killings are somehow connected and we have a serial killer. But things take a wild turn when her mother, Indiana, looks to be the next victim. "Mom is still alive, but she's going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday," is the opening line of the book. The suspense heightens near the end as we hear some passages in the voice of the killer, who desecrates his victim's bodies post-mortem. Bu Allende's wit and wisdom balance this out, and I love the way Amanda and her grandfather say goodbye to each other, she playfully, "You love me, Grandpa?" "Nope." "Me neither."
As Isabel said, she read many of the dark Scandinavian crime novels which have become so popular of late (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) before proceeding. Isabel told her book club listeners that the novel -- like all of her books -- was written in Spanish, came out first in Spain and South America to much acclaim-and was published in English last month. "It was a lot of fun to write," she concluded, and I must add it is a lot of fun to read. As the New York Times concluded: "One by one the characters take their places on a canvas so crowded with life that even death seems to melt into the background." Yes, this is a wonderful, ripsnorting tale by an authentic story-telling genius. And I can't wait to see the movie.
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