Books

02.23.14

Isabel Allende’s Controversial New Thriller

Bestseller author Isabel Allende caused a furor when she dismissed mysteries while she herself was promoting her new novel, a mystery itself. She talks to Jane Ciabattari about the controversy and why she tried her hand at the genre.

Isabel Allende has stirred up a hornet’s nest. 

In a January 25 NPR interview, she said of her new novel Ripper, “The book is tongue-in-cheek. It’s very ironic…and I’m not a fan of mysteries…So I thought, I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what readers expect, but it is a joke.”

Some mystery authors and fans took offense at her remarks, accusing her of being scornful of the mystery genre. She apologized in a letter to Houston bookseller McKenna Jordan, who had returned signed copies of Ripper after hearing the NPR interview. 

Weeks before that interview, I sat down with Allende to discuss a double family tragedy involving her husband, lawyer-turned-crime novelist William C. Gordon, that was the backdrop to her writing Ripper. Allende’s first mystery-writing venture began in January 2012. She and her husband had been through “three years in hell,” she told me as she sat drinking tea in her sunny Sausalito office, which is in an area chockablock with yoga studios, with a serene garden outside and photos of Allende with President Obama and the Dalai Lama, among others, on the walls. 

Allende’s husband had been diagnosed (misdiagnosed, as it turned out) with a fatal illness, and when he was getting better, his son died, she explained. She told her agent she was retiring. Hoping to tempt her back into writing, her agent suggested that she and her husband collaborate on a book in his genre. 

The partnership lasted less than a day, Allende said. Gordon writes in English, by hand, in yellow legal pads. He doesn’t research his books; they all take place in San Francisco in the 1960s, a period he knows well. And, she said with a chuckle, he has an attention span of 11 minutes. She writes in Spanish, 11 hours a day, and she researches extensively. “I realized I could end up doing all the work and getting half the credit,” she said, laughing. “He says I’m very bossy.”

I did not intend my remarks to be scornful to the noir genre or to mystery writers. I am married to one. I was mostly making fun of myself but it came across badly.

Gordon, whose life is the basis for Allende’s The Infinite Plan, her first novel set in the U.S., went on to work on his sixth detective novel, Emma.

Allende started Ripper.

“I’d never written a crime novel,” Allende said, “nothing with violence.”  And she hadn’t read mysteries since the Agatha Christies and Arthur Conan Doyles of her youth.

Despite the fact she’d published 19 books, and sold more than 60 million copies, Allende behaved like any other aspiring crime novelist. She took classes at the Book Passage Mystery Writers conference in Corte Madera, near her Marin County home, to learn how to research a crime novel. There, she learned about homicide, weapons, drugs, and poisons from a forensic expert, Dr. D. P. Lyle. 

Ripper is an autobiographical family saga, an Allende trademark since her first novel, House of the Spirits, with its indelible mother, daughter, and granddaughter trio—Clara, Blanca, and Alba—and intimidating patriarch, Esteban. Her subject came to her as she watched her granddaughter play an online mystery game set in Jack the Ripper’s London. Ripper is a game to be played by a six kids. The character Amanda, based on her granddaughter, is a nerdy high school senior bound for M.I.T. Amanda’s mother Indiana, is a Reiki practitioner in a North Beach holistic clinic, and her grandfather Blake is a pharmacist and frustrated writer. The three are caught up in a criminal case involving a serial killer.

In the novel, the Ripper game becomes real. Amanda, four other kids, and her grandfather Blake, whose real age is disguised by his avatar, investigate a series of real-life murders. They learn clues through the press and from Amanda’s father Bob, a deputy chief of homicide in the San Francisco Police Department.

Indiana, Allende said, is modeled upon an Argentine healer who had helped her husband during his recent dark times—Ana Cejas, an expert in aromatherapy, a healer and a white witch. “Indiana is very loyal to her father, to her daughter, to her patients,” she said.

To develop the character of Ryan, a client who is attracted to Indiana, a Navy SEAL with a prosthetic called a Flex-Foot Cheetah, Allende found a real Navy Seal, Robert Miller, who was willing to talk.  ”I spent three days with him in Washington, hearing about his experiences,” she said.

Ryan is devoted to Attila, his battle-scarred and loyal war dog. There were 2,300 war dogs in Afghanistan at the time she was writing the book. “Once they were considered equipment,” she said. “Now they are considered companions. Their comrades never leave them behind.”

A psychologist helped her understand the mind of the serial killer, whose pattern includes using various methods that might be used in executions, like hanging, lethal injection, and electrocution. It was only after she had written the third murder, she said, that she realized there was a pattern.

Did she use diagrams, wall charts, or an outline to handle the plotting?

“My brain doesn’t work that way,” she said. “I zigzag my way through.”

Ripper includes detailed descriptions of San Francisco Bay Area settings, from Indiana’s holistic clinic in North Beach to a luxury suite in the Fairmont Hotel to Samuel P. Taylor Park in Marin County, where Indiana and Ryan first meet, to Portrero Hill, where Amanda, Indiana, and Blake live, to the “hippie towns along the coast where they grow marijuana and make meth.” (Allende, who was born in Peru and raised in Chile, has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 26 years.)

She included an inside joke. Samuel Hamilton,Jr., a private investigator in Ripper, is the son of “a journalist who had solved a number of crimes in San Francisco back in the 1960s and was immortalized in the detective novels of William C. Gordon,” she writes, alluding to the sleuth in her husband’s books.

Ripper was “a fast book to write,” she said.  “I just had fun.”

Then came the book tour, and the brouhaha following that NPR interview. 

Did she intend her remarks to be scornful? I asked.

“I did not intend my remarks to be scornful to the noir genre or to mystery writers.  I am married to one. I was mostly making fun of myself but it came across badly. In Spanish the word joke (broma) is not at all pejorative, it is playful. In the future I should be careful with humor because often it doesn’t translate well. There is a reason why I write my books in Spanish: after 26 years in this country I still don’t get all the subtleties of the English language or the political correctness.”

She has no plans to handle this matter further, she said. “I have already apologized, what else can I do?  I look forward to returning to my private life and my writing.”