By any measure, Isabel Allende is both a commercial and a critical success as an author. She’s written 20 books (most famously 1982’s The House of the Spirits), which have sold more than 60 million copies in 35 languages. She’s received 14 honorary degrees and more than 50 awards in 15 countries, including induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004.
So, it was with understandable dismay that her agent Carmen Balcells heard from Allende that she was contemplating retirement, almost a half-century after she began her literary career as cofounder of the Chilean women’s magazine Paula. Eager to dissuade her, Balcells suggested that Allende try something new, a collaboration with her husband, Willie Gordon, an American attorney and a mystery writer, with his own reputation. The Chinese Jars (Bay Tree Publishing, 2011), Gordon’s first mystery featuring Samuel Hamilton, an investigative reporter in 1960s San Francisco, was praised by PW as succeeding “in painting an engaging portrait of a bygone era.” (His fifth in the series, The Halls of Power, is due out in March).
But the writing partnership was not destined to succeed. At an interview in their NoHo apartment (their primary residence is in California), Allende shared why: Allende spends entire days writing in isolation while Gordan has a less disciplined approach, and “can’t be disconnected” from his electronic devices. So, in order to preserve her sanity, her deadline, and her marriage, she decided to do the book on her own. She started writing on January 8, 2012, the day of the year when she begins all her books. (On January 8, 1981, she began composing the letter to her ailing grandfather that eventually inspired The House of the Spirits, and she considers the date as lucky for her.)
The end result, Ripper, a mystery with a MIT-bound teenage sleuth, Amanda, on the trail of a serial killer, is unlike her previous work; take her name off the book and few people would suspect her hand in the gore. And although it appears simultaneously in Spanish and English (a first for Allende) just two months after the 125th anniversary of Jack the Ripper’s murders in 1888 London, that timing is mere coincidence.
The actual inspiration for this major departure from her usual probing the mysteries of the human heart, was Allende’s college-age granddaughter, Andrea Frias. Frias described an online role-playing game that she played, called Ripper, and something about it intrigued Allende. Looking to take a break from more serious subject matter, and having considered taking a break from fiction altogether, she thought to try her hand at a genre that was unfamiliar, despite her husband’s books.
As a girl in Chile, she read Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, but not much else in the genre in the following decades. Aspects of the whodunit appealed to her: the structing, planting clues. And she describes 2013’s Maya’s Notebook, a coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old who becomes a drug addict, as having been constructed along the lines of a detective story. She attended the 2013 Mystery Writers Conference, “where all these very nice people were discussing some very nasty murder methods.” And she picked the brain of D.P. Lyle, author of Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical & Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers, to get the details right.
The end result is a tongue-in-cheek mystery featuring an online community of oddballs: “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.” Their ranks include a wheelchair-bound New Zealand boy, a shy teenager who for years only left his room to go to the bathroom, and an African-American orphan with a genius IQ who uses Sherlock Holmes as his screen name. Gamesmaster Amanda Martin, herself the daughter of an SFPD deputy homicide chief, convinces the players to shift their focus from the foggy streets of Victorian London to present-day San Francisco, where they match wits with the police in tackling modern crimes.
Allende regards her venture into blood and guts as a one-shot deal, and has stopped talking about setting down her pen. And in looking back, Allende comments that many of her characters are silent by choice; one, in House of the Spirits, choses to be mute for almost a decade. For Allende, silence is essential for her to connect with herself, in a world where living amid more and more noise has become increasingly challenging.
But she does engage with unsettling aspects of modern life, in particular, the sufferings of others. Fans of Allende’s fiction might not be surprised to learn about Allende’s other work. In 1992, Allende lost her 28-year-old daughter, Paula Frias, a tragedy that she shares in her memoir, Paula. The income from that book became the seeds for the Isabel Allende Foundation, a charity established to carry on the work Paula, an educator and psychologist, had devoted herself to, helping the poor in communities in Spain and Venezuela. To honor Paula’s memory, the Isabel Allende Foundation funds nonprofit organizations in Chile and in the San Francisco Bay Area, that operate in accord with the foundation’s vision “of a world in which women have achieved social and economic justice.”
One program, targeting improvements in prenatal care for San Francisco homeless women, has led to the establishment of a family resource center that helps thousands of women a year, and the center’s services have led to more than 90% of the infants born to clients emerging both healthy and drug-free. Another group, Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, enables women to start their own businesses; some initially made use of a large communal kitchen to prepare their foodstuffs for sale, but within a short period of time, 80% operated fully independently of the initiative. College students and young professionals in 18 Latin American countries are involved in Un Techo para mi Pais (Roofs for Our Country), which constructs transitional housing for families living in extreme poverty, many of whom survived earthquakes and other natural disasters. The foundation’s work, for Allende, is just a “drop in the desert” but income from Allende’s books continues to be a significant source of support for the foundation’s work
Finally, those romantics who regret that Allende and her husband did not manage to bridge their literary differences, can still take heart. The two have been happily married for over 25 years, despite her initial impression that they had nothing in common, apart from Gordon’s being an admirer of her second book, Of Love and Shadows, and she was once quoted as stating that, on their first date: “I didn’t immediately think he was ‘the one’—I just wanted to have sex with him, and so we had a fling.”
And Gordon has made a mark in Ripper. His own hero’s son, Samuel Hamilton Jr., appears briefly as a PI, and Gordon himself is given a shout-out for his books. Ripper might not be what Allende’s agent had in mind but she got her ultimate wish.