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Monday, August 02, 2010

What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen

Cohen, Paula Marantz.  What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.

An uncorrected advanced copy, this is a tale of the James' siblings (Henry, William, and Alice) uniting their efforts to discover the identity of Jack the Ripper.  What is entertaining is the idea of Henry James in a novel with his respected brother William, and his "invalid" sister, Alice.  Alice suffers from hysteria which keeps her confined to bed most of the time, but does not keep her mind from ranging widely and effectively.

The real life Alice was indeed an invalid most of the time and was treated for hysteria.  In the novel, Alice works with her brothers in an attempt to identify and apprehend the man known only as Jack the Ripper.

Some of the dialogue is interesting and amusing as they discuss or converse with other characters from real life such as John Singer Sergeant, Oscar Wilde, George du Maurier, Mark Twain, Ellen Terry, Whistler, etc.

 A character of interest is Walter Sickert (Patricia Cornwell believes Sickert was Jack the Ripper).   Alice asks Sickert to paint her portrait, and the two find a strange attraction.  Sickert, in real life, had a fascination with the crimes. 

The first of the novel is more entertaining than the latter part, mainly because William's character becomes a little heavy.  William James was a philosopher, medical doctor, and a psychologist, with interests in religion, education, and mysticism.  In the novel, he is called in by Scotland Yard to see if he can lend any aid to the investigation.

As the investigation continues, the book has a bit of a sidetrack as William is tempted by a beautiful woman and jealous of his sister's relationship with Walter Sickert.  I've no objections to these digressions as it would be interesting to see how a psychologist explains things to himself, but the treatment becomes a little heavy-handed, and William's character becomes plodding. 

Henry's character, on the other hand, is quite amusing, and I wish he had played a larger role.  He is presented as quite a likable fellow although certainly and admittedly self-involved.

I mainly enjoyed the scenes with or about the other historical/literary/artistic characters and  found Walter Sickert worthy of some further research.  As far as The Ripper solution, I didn't find it conclusive or satisfying, although some of the premise was interesting.

The novel seemed to morph into something quite different from beginning to end.  From a light look at the mystery using interesting, witty, intelligent historical characters, to something more ponderous and less successful.

From here, I'd like to read  a good biography of Henry James and The Master a novel by Colm Toibin (link is to Stefanie's review).  I've only read two of James's novels The Turn of the Screw (a novella, several times and enjoyed it each time) and The Ambassadors, which seemed to take forever and will never be reread.
I also would like to read The Diary of Alice James edited by Leon Edel.

Fiction.  Historical mystery.  due for publication in Sept.  341 pages.


  1. Hi Jen,
    Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for stopping by my place. Have a great day!

    Food for Thought

  2. Hmm, this sounds interesting. I tend to be a bit picky when it comes to "real life" characters appearing in fiction but sometimes it works well. I guess I'll just have to check it out when it comes out.

  3. Sherrie - It was interesting in that it views the Ripper from an unusual perspective. Thanks for the mention on your blog!

  4. Iliana - What I like about mentions of real life people is that sometimes my curiosity is aroused, and I want to do further research. Walter Sickert is a good example--his paintings and his interest in the Ripper murders.

    While I wasn't completely satisfied with the novel, my interest in the James siblings, especially Alice, is heightened.

    On the other hand, with real life characters, I think I tend to be more critical if I already have preconceived ideas about them.