Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Review: What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen (A Jack the Ripper Mystery)

What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the RipperLondon, 1888:  A series of gruesome murders were attributed to the mysterious “Jack the Ripper”, but the identity of the serial killer or killers was never conclusively determined.  Today there are scores of theories postulating a solution to this now infamous mystery.  As a result, many works of fiction have grown out of these speculations.

In Paula Marantz Cohen’s novel What Alice Knew, the real-life yet fictionalized versions of Henry, William and Alice James are brought in to investigate the murders.  Henry has a novelist’s point of view as he ponders the killer’s choices.  He even sees some similarities in the passion of the murderer with his own passion for writing.  His elder brother William is a respected psychologist and philosopher who works to get into the mind of the killer in order to apprehend him.  Although Sister Alice is mostly confined to her bed, she assists in the investigation by offering her opinions and observations as details are brought to her.  Together they work to solve an urgent mystery, sometimes putting their very lives in danger to do so.

*          *          *

Generally, murder mysteries aren’t usually my genre of choice, but with What Alice Knew, the draw of the 19th Century period drew me in again.  Not only did I feel drawn in, but also truly transported back to those dark days in London.  Cohen is an excellent writer who not only weaves a good mystery, but brings other attributes to her work as well.

While the Ripper killings hold the central theme of the novel, there were times when the thoughts of some of the characters almost made the book part mystery, part philosophical and psychological speculation.  I enjoyed these moments, as they gave the story depth that went beyond just crime solving.

Due to the nature of the killings, I found myself skipping over the details of the crime scenes. After reading about the first victim, I didn’t need to take in any more of “Jack’s” gruesome displays.  There was plenty of non-gory, contextual detail found in the sentences around those scenes.  So if gore is not your thing, I would either skip this title or at least just skip over the crime scenes as I did.

Having said that, I did enjoy What Alice Knew on a number of levels.  I received a bit of historical education regarding the real persons of William, Henry and Alice, although I know this story is mostly a work of fiction.  There were plenty of factual details that truly were a part of the James’s lives and in the history of 1888 London.

The psychological and philosophical discussions that occurred along the way were a nice diversion from the mostly dark subject matter.  And while I didn’t agree with all the philosophies spouted by these characters, I still found it an interesting read.

The mystery aspect of the novel of course took center stage, and Ms. Cohen was methodical and interesting as she unfolded her narrative.  I found her ultimate conclusion to be very intriguing, which caused me to really enjoy the final chapter of the book. I would like to say more about this, but I would hate to spoil the ending for anyone.

My overall impression is a positive one.  The story was alluring, well-written and kept me guessing all the way to the end.  I could have done without the gore, but that aspect would be nearly impossible to exclude with the nature of  “Jack’s” crimes. In any case, this was not a dominating feature. I enjoyed the character studies of the James family, their method of crime solving and their occasional spouting of psychology and philosophy.  While this isn’t one of my favorite books of all time, I enjoyed my days with What Alice Knew and believe fans of the mystery genre will as well.

This title was provided by Sourcebooks Landmark.
No obligation other than an honest review was required



  1. Wow that really sounds like a great book!
    Thanks for the rec/review!

  2. I'm dying to read this one -- I've a bit of a crush on the James family so this seems right up my alley! I appreciate the note about the crime scenes -- I'm a bit squeamish about blood/violence in my books so I'll be skipping that too!

  3. Audra: A bit of a crush on the James family! Now that's one I've never heard. Well you'd definitely like this one for sure.

    Marie: It wasn't always fun, but certainly interesting!




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