by Isabel Allende
Harper, 496 pp., $28.99
To make Arabic coffee, explains a murder suspect in Isabel Allende’s “Ripper,” you “boil the coffee with sugar and cardamom pods three times in the copper pot, then wait for the sediment to settle before serving.”
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There are deliciously creepy elements in “Ripper” much like those in the dark Scandinavian crime novels one of its characters loves. But there’s a lot of extraneous sediment floating around, muddying its impact.
This is the first foray into the thriller genre for Allende, a prolific author best known for historical fiction (“Daughter of Fortune,” “Inés of My Soul”) and whose last novel was 2013’s lovely, haunting and contemporary “Maya’s Notebook.”
“Ripper” is set in 2012 San Francisco, where precocious MIT-bound high-school senior Amanda Martín is in charge of Ripper, a role-playing game. “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 and destroy the mysterious Jack the Ripper …”
In a Nancy Drew twist, the gamers shift focus to a series of murders in the City by the Bay in an unsolicited attempt to help Amanda’s father, chief homicide detective Bob Martín.
As a high-school senior and football star, Martín had gotten his 15-year-old girlfriend, Indiana Jackson, pregnant. Philandering Bob doesn’t wise up and find a direction in life until after Indiana divorces him when Amanda is a toddler. The grown-up Indiana is a big-hearted holistic healer and a voluptuous beauty with a string of admirers. The most interesting of these is Ryan Miller, a physically and psychically wounded ex-Navy SEAL.
Flashbacks to one of Miller’s missions in Afghanistan are vivid, affecting and essential to the story. Not as effective are detours that cut into the tension as the murders multiply — especially one into the world of gangbanger dog fights.
Overly long “Ripper” doesn’t kick into can’t-put-it down gear until near the end, when some passages start being told in the voice of the killer, who desecrates victims’ bodies post mortem. The gruesomeness is offset by Allende’s warmth and wit. Amanda and her grandfather say goodbye with the playful “You love me, Gramps?” “Nope.” “Me neither.”
And Allende’s description of a TV astrologer paints a comically precise picture: “She looked like Eva Perón, with a few extra pounds.”
Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a Seattle Times desk editor.