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What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper

Overview

"A marvelously rich and intelligent read, atmospheric, witty, irreverent, and not least a sharply perceptive portrait of those three extraordinary Jameses."
-John Banville, author of The Infinities

Under Certain Circumstances, No One Is More Suited to Solving a Crime than a Woman Confined to Her Bed

An invalid for most her life, Alice James is quite used to people underestimating her. And she generally doesn't mind. But this time she is not ...

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What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper

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Overview

"A marvelously rich and intelligent read, atmospheric, witty, irreverent, and not least a sharply perceptive portrait of those three extraordinary Jameses."
-John Banville, author of The Infinities

Under Certain Circumstances, No One Is More Suited to Solving a Crime than a Woman Confined to Her Bed

An invalid for most her life, Alice James is quite used to people underestimating her. And she generally doesn't mind. But this time she is not about to let things alone. Yes, her brother Henry may be a famous author, and her other brother William a rising star in the new field of psychology. But when they all find themselves quite unusually involved in the chase for a most vile new murderer-one who goes by the chilling name of Jack the Ripper-Alice is certain of two things:

No one could be more suited to gather evidence about the nature of the killer than her brothers. But if anyone is going to correctly examine the evidence and solve the case, it will have to be up to her.

Praise for Paula Marantz Cohen

"Cohen's wit is sharp, smart, and satirical, and her characterizations are vividly on target."
-San Francisco Chronicle

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Cohen (Jane Austen in Scarsdale) pits novelist Henry James; his philosopher brother, William; and their sister, Alice, against Jack the Ripper in another fictional depiction of the Ripper case. With 1888 London in an uproar over the sadistic murders, Scotland Yard summons William from Harvard in the hope that his insights into the human mind will succeed where their efforts have failed. The three siblings, who soon conclude that the butchery is not the work of a skilled medical hand, decide to focus on the artistic community after Alice observes that the mutilations resemble a painter's brushstrokes. Other real-life characters, like Oscar Wilde and Ellen Terry, lend a hand in the investigation. While the solution to the question of the Ripper's identity is less than satisfying and the killer's motivation underdeveloped, the author does a good job of evoking the grimness of everyday life in the Whitechapel slums. (Sept.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402243554
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 537,391
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Jane Austen in Boca, Jane Austen in Scarsdale, and Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and four scholarly works of nonfiction. She lives in Moorestown, New Jersey, with her husband and two children.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
London. 1888.

Henry James was drunk.

The room where he was dining looked familiar, but he could not place it. There was an oak sideboard, elaborately carved, and a cupboard containing a collection of fine porcelains. The plate was bone china, the silver heavy and apparently old. There was a landscape (was it Corot?) near the door, a set of prints (Rowlandson?) on the side wall, and a portrait by someone of talent over the mantel. It was a good house, though how good was a matter of whether the portrait was by van Dyck of an esteemed ancestor or by Sargent of a more contemporary personage (he was too bleary-eyed to look), and whether the silver had been passed down or purchased secondhand.

Henry was seated at a large, well-appointed table at which he vaguely recognized some of the guests. Mrs. Drummond was to his left, and Lady Dalrymple to his right (unless it was the other way around); Oscar Wilde was gesticulating at the far end; and across was Edmund Gosse, if it was Gosse, bent over his soup. There were others he was certain he knew, except he could not summon up their names. Not that it mattered. Real places and people were the germs that fertilized his novels, but a certain level of distractedness (helped by a certain quantity of wine) left an opening for the imagination.

"What do you think, Mr. James?" asked the woman to his left-Lady Dalrymple or Mrs. Drummond-the face blurred in his vision. He had almost finished his soup, a very nice beef bouillon, and would have liked to answer the lady (whoever she was) if only he knew what she was talking about.

Fortunately they were interrupted by Wilde, engaged in one of his familiar critiques of someone who wasn't there.

"I can't say I think much of Stevenson's work," Wilde pronounced. "It's thin. The stage adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde owes its success to the actors; the book lacks depth and amplification. If the man weren't so ill, I would be harsher. And if he were dead, which they say he will be in a year, I would be more generous."

"Dead? Who's dead?" shouted an elderly gentleman across the table.

"No one, yet," said Wilde, "but in time, all of us. Though some sooner than others," he added, sotto voce, to the handsome young man seated next to him.

Henry pushed away his soup. Secretly he agreed with Wilde about Stevenson. How was it that Louis had gotten his Jekyll and Hyde produced for the stage? Henry's lifelong dream was to have his own work adapted for performance, but when he approached the theater people, they said his novels were not dramatic. This was nonsense; they were extremely dramatic if one read them carefully.

"Stevenson's tale chilled my blood," asserted one of the pretty, more impressionable women.

"Then your blood, exquisite though it is, is easily chilled, madam," chided Wilde. "Lopping a man in half so that the animal is turned loose is an obvious sort of conceit and entirely unrealistic. Much better if the monster doesn't look like a monster at all, but like an angel, the point being that the worst atrocities are committed not by animals but by men, and often men of apparent refinement."

A stout American woman in heavy brocade looked up from her soup. "I can always tell a person by his face," she announced, casting a supercilious glance around the table.

Henry winced. Although he had lived in London for years, he still took the arrogant stupidity of his countrymen personally. The stout American woman was married to an oil man or a lumber man, referred to as though they were made of these substances, which perhaps they were. One never saw the men, only their wives, who were everywhere, elbowing their way into the best houses.

"I pride myself on my ability to read faces," the American woman continued, raising her chin to reveal a set of emeralds whose vulgar splendor caused Henry to avert his gaze. "I have only to look in a person's eyes, and I know his character." She cast a flirtatious glance in the direction of the handsome young man sitting next to Wilde, who raised an eyebrow back.

"I question your infallibility, madam," countered Wilde. "The best actors are always the best villains. And evil often comes in seductive guises. Think of Duessa in Spenser's Faerie Queene, her monstrous nether parts hidden under beautiful drapery."

"Nether parts-where?" demanded the elderly gentleman, excitedly. "I have no idea what you are referring to, Mr. Wilde." The American woman shrugged. "But I am certain that it would not change my mind." Henry drained his glass.

There it was: the most dire attribute of the new money was its complacency. It wore its ignorance like a badge of honor. "What do you think, Mr. James?" asked the woman to his left. He wished she would leave him alone, though she was to be commended for valuing his opinion. He took a sip from the glass in front of him that had been refilled.

"I don't believe in the existence of evil per se." He spoke slowly, taking care not to slur his words. "I believe that men, and women"-he nodded politely to the woman-"may be prompted to commit acts of thoughtlessness, even cruelty, in pursuit of some greatly desired object, and that repetition of such acts, given the persistence of certain influences, may create a kind of reflex of mind. The act, in short, grows habitual; the conscience dulls. One might call this the evolution of a depraved personality. But that would be an oversimplification."

"Everything for you is an oversimplification," noted Wilde.

"But you've written about evil, haven't you, Henry?" asked Gosse (if it was Gosse).

"Evil, as I conceive it, is in the effects of the action, not inherent in the perpetrator," Henry recited, surprised to be able to put it so succinctly.

"Your position ignores the more heinous sorts of human cruelty," countered Wilde. "The Whitechapel murders, for example. Are you going to argue that the perpetrator is not an evil man? That his murders are the result of complex motivation?"

"It's not the sort of thing that interests me," said Henry shortly, starting in on the oysters that had made an appearance on his plate.

"You are wrong not to be interested in those poor women," said the female to his left. "That's precisely why they continue to be killed. If it was one of us, the perpetrator would have been caught long ago."

Henry thought that his sister, Alice, would say the same thing, and the thought momentarily humbled him. He bowed his head, finishing the oysters and watching as a portion of sweetbreads au jus replaced them.

"The police think the Whitechapel murderer is at large, mixing among us," said the handsome young man seated next to Wilde.

"He's a lunatic!" declared Du Maurier (was George here? Mused Henry; had they come together?) "You've read the letters he wrote to the newspaper. No sane man would write with such odd taunts and turns of phrase."

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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Dark, Smart and Seductive

    I was absolutely thrilled to be asked to read and review Paula Marantz Cohen's new novel, What Alice Knew, as I have read nearly every book (nonfiction and fiction) about Jack the Ripper I can get my hands on and I enjoy certain aspects of the Victorian era.

    I was not disappointed by this marvelous book, which alternated between darkness and stinging intelligence but always remained descriptive. Ms. Cohen brought to life the bleak disparity between the lucky (the upper class) in London and abject (below working class poor ) residing in Whitechapel of 1888. Turning each page, I could detect the slight lavender from a well to do gentleman's handkerchief, to the aroma of a nice beef bouillon soup and then, just as quickly, the heavy scent of drink and hopeless despair from the squalid streets and back alleys. So vivid were her words that I could easily picture each chapter and event as though I were watching a film, or as if Ms. Cohen were describing such occurrences from memory.

    Ms. Cohen takes real persons of note, such as Henry James, William James, Alice James, Oscar Wilde and John Singer Sargent, but to name a few, and spins a fascinating, complex novel. Reading What Alice Knew, it was relatively easy to forget I was reading a work of fiction, based upon actual persons, and not an exact accounting of a horrible season in London in 1888.

    Taking on real life persons can be a risky business, nevermind the as-yet officially unidentified Jack the Ripper. Ms. Cohen does so with aplomb. I was fascinated with how she wove her literary web surrounding this black figure and more than pleased and satisfied with how she resolved the mystery.

    In all, I thoroughly enjoyed What Alice Knew and found it surpassed my expectations. So good and engrossing was the read that I handily zipped through it in just over 2 days and it left me wanting to read more books of the period, including those of central character Henry James himself.

    If you like period dramas, mysteries and thrillers and fictional takes on the infamous Jack the Ripper, I encourage you to pick up this book. You won't be sorry.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    not bad

    i thought the ending a wee bit rushed. In TV series fashion. Lets justget this over with. I did like the suggestion of 'or was it...?' in the epilogue.
    I also thought the title a bit inappropriate after reading the book. It was really the three siblings together not just Alice by herself....

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 28, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Jack The Ripper Revisited

    Has there ever been a more satisfactory villian than Jack the Ripper? His identity as the first publicized serial killer, the depravity of his acts, and the fact that he was never conclusively identified has made his fame more eternal, as each person can configure the facts to fit their own ideas of who he must have been.

    In What Alice Knew, Paula Marantz Cohen has contrucked an interesting premise in which the James siblings, Henry, William and Alice, come together to identify Jack the Ripper. William has been asked by Scotland Yard to come over from America to lend his psychological expertise. Henry is a member in good standing of London society, and his talent as a novelist often leads him to notice relationships that others are oblivious to. Alice, their invalid sister, has necessarily concentrated her powers to delve into others' minds and thoughts. Together they make a formidable team.

    The facts of the Ripper's crimes are all here, but don't overwhelm the reader. Other famous people make appearances, including Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, Samuel Clemens and James Whistler. Each familiar name and the portrayal of their world helps the reader understand how shocking these crimes were and how they were the talk of every table and meetingplace in London. Can William, James and Alice find a way to uncover the identity of this man before he kills again?

    Cohen has created an intriguing world. A Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, she has the necessary knowledge of the period to make a very believable world, from the cream of society to the servants who organize the lives of these men and women, to those unfortunates mired in poverty and brutish lives. In addition, she knows the worlds of art, literature and education that give the book its realistic feel. This book is recommended for mystery lovers and those interested in the James family and their social strata.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2010

    not a new favorite

    I liked this book but I didn't love it. it was a little dry to read. The three main characters (William, Henry, and Alice) were written into the book so that, in my opinion, the reader doesn't feel as much empathy towards them. The Ripper victims you feel sympathetic towards because it explains the horrors each went through but it doesnt go into any of their pasts so the reader doesnt feel the same shock they would if a much beloved character were to meet a ghastly end. Cohen seemed so focus on including all the notworthy artistic characters of that time period into the book (Clemens, Wilde, James) that besides listing them all and adding a bit of dialogue, she didnt want to delve any deeper into any of the personalities. As i said before, it was good but I wish she would of including more emotion into the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 10, 2011

    Highly recommended, especially for English teachers

    I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It had mystery, humor, and suspense. I loved most seeing (spying on?) many writers, painters, and philosophical thinkers of the 19th century. Cohen knows the James family well, and the interaction between William and Henry had me chuckling. I also enjoyed reading a work of literature and not just a mystery novel. If you are familiar with William James and/or Henry James, you will enjoy this novel.

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  • Posted September 20, 2010

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    Bridget's Review

    I enjoyed this book so much! I was engrossed from the second page all the way to the end. Paula weave's a rich tale that shouldn't be missed. Alice is one of my favorite characters of all time and I'm sure you will agree when you read this book.

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  • Posted September 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    More about the characters than the mystery for me...

    What Alice Knew is an utterly original historical mystery. Paula Marantz Cohen has taken many well known historical figures and incorporated them as the characters in this period tale. Novelist Henry James, his psychologist brother William and their bedridden sister Alice are the main protagonists, but others such as Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and John Singer Sargent figure prominently.

    And of course - Jack the Ripper. Cohen brings 1888 London, England to life with her descriptions of locales and social customs. But it is the dialogue and interactions between the characters that provide such a fresh inventive look at a event that has been covered many times before. The conversations between the siblings is witty, clever and very entertaining. The character of Alice is especially engaging - her self imposed bed rest seems at odds with her quick and intelligent mind, but she is self aware. When we get a glimpse at her vulnerabilities, she becomes all the more authentic. Of all the historical figures, I enjoyed her portrayal the most.


    "...that the solution to these horrific crimes requires the three of us. Henry, to observe the social world where I sense the murder lurks and to plumb his friends and acquaintances for gossip. William, to study the physical evidence through his contact with the police and to supply psychological analysis where needed.

    And you? William asked in amused wonder. What will you do?

    Me? She levelled her intelligent gaze at her brothers. I will review what you gather....and solve the case."

    Cohen has presented a 'solution' to the Ripper mystery that is both plausible and unique. But the fun in this book is the journey not the resolution. Highly entertaining.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An interesting take on Jack the Ripper

    This book was very descriptive. VERY descriptive. Yet it added a lot of 'flavor' and really set the setting for the book. It made picturing the scenes and settings much more clearer and it almost felt like watching a movie. I especially like the dinner scenes (particularly when Henry was hosting a party) they were very well written and it also gave you a look on how parties were handled during that particular time period in England.

    The three main characters, Henry, William and Alice James were also well done. I liked how each of them although siblings, they had issues and problems of their own and never talked about it amongst themselves. Yet it was also fun to see the sibling rivalry especially between Henry and William. (With Alice usually being the one to stop the bickering) It made the characters more real and three dimensional - not to mention more enjoyable to read. What I thought was really interesting was the addition of other famous literary and artistic characters into the plot. They have small roles (I particularly liked Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain in the book) but it suits the setting as Henry belonged to these particular social circles and it's only logical that they would be featured in the novel. There were some characters that I had to look up online to see if they existed or not - particularly the artists as I have no knowledge of who's who. It did turn out to be quite a learning experience for me.

    The plot was well done and well written. I found it a bit dry in some areas and wished it went just a little bit faster - I admit it was a little slow towards the end of the novel. The beginning however was certainly interesting and caught my attention. I thought the ending was interesting and although vague, it got me wondering if the mystery was really solved (or not). There is plenty of mystery in the book and the suspects add more to the intrigue. I myself had guesses as to who Jack the Ripper was, but with the ending, now I'm not so sure. I liked how the epilogue rounded out the book. I found it creepy and chilling at the same time. It still left me with a lot of questions, but the feeling of uneasiness was left behind. (Which I liked, it certainly added more intrigue to the story).

    Overall, an interesting mystery featuring Jack the Ripper. Yet the book still leaves you wondering; "Did he/she do it?" Although I recommend this to history lovers and those who are interested in the Jack the Ripper murders, I'd have to wonder if perhaps those who know their artists as well as writers of this particular time period would definitely enjoy this book more than I did?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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