What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen
Paperback, 352 pages
September 1, 2010
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Received from publisher Sourcebooks for review
“Henry James was drunk again. Another night, another dinner party, with the usual collection of bores or worse, “wits”, like that insufferable Oscar Wilde. Life, it seems, might be destines to just go on like this for poor Henry.
Then luckily, his brother, William – a bit of a name himself in that new science of psychology – arrives. He was summoned, it seems, from America by Scotland Yard to help investigate and East End serial killer who calls himself Jack the Ripper. Suddenly, things are much more interesting.”
What initially caught my attention about this book was the subject of Jack the Ripper. I have always been intrigued by this story and have watched a show recently on this subject and I knew I had to read this author’s take on the crime. I didn’t really know much about the James family, but I figured I would learn as I went along.
One of the things that the author did that really made the book come to life was the use and understanding of the local language. You could certainly tell the difference in whether the character was from the upper or lower class just through her word choices. This technique made the characters more realistic. At the same time, you had characters from all walks of life involved in this story. You had the James family and all of their cohorts at dinner parties and various functions, including artist John Singer Sargent, author Oscar Wilde, and assorted others. Not only did you get a crime/mystery story, but you also got a glimpse of the art world, literary world and acting world. You were really able to see the world as someone, like Henry or William James, would have – from the seedy, back alley to the posh, dining rooms.
In terms of the investigation into the White Chapel Murders and Jack the Ripper, I think the best way to describe it, was like a Victorian version of CSI. You learned who some suspects were, tried to collect evidence and use the science they had at the time to interpret that evidence, witnesses were questioned, documents examined, and much more. Theories were thrown around and the author provides a fictional theory to who the killer may have been – but nothing was set in stone, much like the real story of Jack the Ripper. I love crime shows, so this book was perfect. To top it all off, the ending really made you think about all of the facts you thought you knew from the story, and really consider what you believed.
Overall, this book was a hit for me. The pages just flew by and I never wanted to put it down. It now had reignited my interest in the Ripper story.
Paula Marantz Cohen is the author of several books including the novels: Jane Austen in Scarsdale, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Boca. You can visit her website for more information about her works.
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