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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book Review: What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen

What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen
Paperback, 352 pages
Sourcebooks Landmark
September 1, 2010
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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.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

Also by Paula Marantz Cohen:

much ado jesse kaplan

Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan

jane in boca

Jane Austen in Boca

jane in scarsdale
Jane Austen in Scarsdale

Find Paula Marantz Cohen: Website


Copyright © 2010 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. I've heard so much about this one!! I have put it on my wish list, I can't wait to read it!!

  2. Wonderful review! I have this novel on my wishlist and I am eager to read it, so it's very good to hear it's such a good read. Thanks for sharing! Jack the Ripper is still able to intrigue us to this day and I love that the novel adds a new twist: the James family.

  3. I have seen this book floating around on the book blogs but was not certain what it was about. I am glad that I read your review. While I am not a huge crime show fan, I am finding myself interested in crime/murder/mystery type books. Jack the Ripper has always seemed rather scary to me, but I now find myself curious. Thanks for putting this book on my radar.

  4. Coffee and a Book Chick - I think that you will enjoy this one.

    Irena - I think that Jack the Ripper still continues to intrigue us today because of the greusome nature of the crimes and because they were never solved.

    Ibeeeg - This book is certainly not scary, but it is really thorough the way the crime is investigated. I recently learned that her parts of her theory she presents is an actual theory that was out there.

  5. Well now, parts of her theory she gives was actually out there is very interesting. That further intrigues me. I do think I need to get my hands on this book.

  6. Ibeeeg - When I was reading the story I was thinking, there is no way this was a real theory. It just felt a little out there, but then I was doing some research at www.casebook.org (for my upcoming post on Jack the Ripper's letters) and I started reading their theories page and there was a theory that involved several of the characters and some of the twists (which she added to of course). I thought it was so interesting. Hope you enjoy it!

  7. I have it bad for the James siblings so I'm *dying* to get my hands on this one. The Jack the Ripper thing is pretty whatever for me -- although I rather enjoyed your post on his letters!

    I do love books like this that reminds us of what an era really was like -- I think of Jack the Ripper but I don't think of Sargent or Wilde.

  8. Audra - that's so funny for me because I really don't know much about the James family at all. I think I only vaguely knew the name Henry James, but I love Sargent's works (so he was more familar to me)!


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