Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hold on to your hats, another great read! WHAT ALICE KNEW A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen

Paula Marantz Cohen is an exceptional writer of fiction and non-fiction. Among her non-fiction works are: SILENT FILM AND THE TRIUMPH OF THE AMERICAN MYTH and ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE LEGACY OF VICTORIANISM.

The Hitchcock book sounds especially interesting to me. But I'm more familiar with Cohen's humorous fiction:

JANE AUSTEN IN BOCA (Pride and Prejudice among the geriatric set at a senior living complex in Florida) A book that should never have worked but somehow does. I loved it.

JANE AUSTEN IN SCARSDALE, a retooling of PERSUASION among the teaching set at a school in the upstate New York suburb. Another inventive take on a classic in which Marantz Cohen does her own fancy footwork and makes the story her own.

MUCH ADO ABOUT JESSIE KAPLAN, a novel about family turmoil and a grandmother who thinks she was Shakespeare's girlfriend in another life. Hilarious.

But now the author has gone in a totally different direction and written a captivating mystery in which the scholarly American James family, Henry, William and their sister Alice, come up against the pitiless, horrific Victorian bogeyman, Jack the Ripper.

WHAT ALICE KNEW A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper is the second historical mystery I've read so far in 2012 and was the book I hinted at when I mentioned, earlier in the week, that I'd read two FABULOUS books already in the new year.

I wasn't kidding. I LOVED this book. I kept putting off reading the last few pages so I wouldn't have to leave the world of Henry James and his brother William and sister Alice. Not to mention their friends, the artist John Singer Sargent, author and playwright Oscar Wilde, painter Walter Sickert and other assorted artistic Victorian wheelers and dealers. The social circle in which the James siblings moved, immediately grabbed my attention.

Victorian England was a very divided world of rigid social classes, with the rich on one end and the abject poor on the other. When a killer strikes in the seamy Whitechapel area of London, violently slashing several prostitutes and earning himself the infamous name of Jack the Ripper, the police are baffled. In fact, to this day, the actual killer has never been satisfactorily identified - no matter what Patricia Cornwell says. (Though I tend to agree with her take. It makes as much sense as any other.)

In Marantz Cohen's book, William James, a professor of English Philosophy and a proponent of the new science of Psychology at Harvard University, receives a letter from Scotland Yard requesting his help in the matter of the Whitechapel murders.

He sets sail for Europe and once in London reunites with his brother, novelist Henry (author of THE GOLDEN BOWL, THE TURN OF THE SCREW, THE AMBASSADORS, THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, WINGS OF THE DOVE and other classics) and their bed-ridden, invalid sister Alice.

Author Paula Marantz Cohen captures the differing personalities of these three exceptional individuals and immediately draws us into their lives. She's created a place where fiction and reality will overlap as she sets the James family to solving a monstrous series of crimes. Again, with her talent and facility for making the most absurd ideas come to life, Marantz Cohen takes her far fetched notion and makes it work.

Alice is an especially interesting character, a woman who spends most of her days in bed though admittedly there is nothing really wrong with her. She has a propensity for fainting and/or some sort of  physical weakness and that is enough to keep her from venturing forth. She lives a secluded life with a friend, a woman who takes care of her and sees to her comfort.

The details of this long-term relationship are hinted at but never revealed. In fact, of the three siblings, William is the only one who ever married. Henry James was a lifelong bachelor of unresolved sexual identity - a man who could not trust himself to be what his nature probably intended.

Alice insists on knowing all the details of the Ripper case as soon as William reveals he is consulting with Scotland Yard and going about with an Inspector Abberline. She, Henry and William have family counsels in which she makes the point that a bed-ridden woman with a functioning mind is perfectly suited to solving a crime.

The men don't scoff at this as might other Victorian era gentlemen, English or American, which is a gold star in their favor. Henry and William respect their sister and are wise to her gift for noticing details others might overlook.

This is not really a whodunit though Cohen gives us a couple of plausible suspects - one of which is the same person writer Patricia Cornwell is convinced was the actual Ripper. (She claims to have proved it in her book, PORTRAIT OF A KILLER.)

Marantz Cohen details dark events and hairbreadth escapes, an almost love affair and sinister doings enough to keep the attention. But for me, the great attraction of this book are the vivid characters driving the story. They are what kept me reading late into the night.

The author also uses multiple viewpoints effectively. We move from Henry's point of view, to William's, to Alice's in a very smooth and orderly fashion. We learn about the murders and are repulsed. We become aware of Henry's fears and insecurities, his weakness for alcohol and good food, his devotion to his writing, we learn of William's earlier nervous breakdown, his fear of becoming weak again, his attraction to a beautiful Jewish woman from a wealthy family.

We learn that Alice  has an active mind and loves gossip and the visits of good friends such as Sargent and his sister. We learn she is not indifferent to flattery. We worry that she will fall prey to the evil lurking in the streets of the city.

We attend dinners, listen to gossip, move about the city and wish we could linger with the James family indefinitely. I never wanted this book to end. I admit it. I was caught up in this Victorian world.

Soon as I could I reserved Colm Toibin's book about Henry James, THE MASTER and picked it up today at the library. I also found a copy of James' THE GOLDEN BOWL on my shelf and added it to my definite TBR pile. I would love to find a good biography of John Singer Sargent.

I am also anxiously waiting to see what Paula Marantz Cohen writes next.

Many thanks to Bev at her blog, MY READER'S BLOCK for calling this book to my attention.


  1. I have The Golden Bowl on my shelf, as well. I bought it when we first moved to Wichita and I still haven't read it yet!

    What Alice Knew sounds like another one for the TBR pile!

  2. This one will make you yearn for Henry James and his world. I'm sure of it.

  3. O.K. Another few books for my TBR list. The one about the James' brothers and sister sounds fascinating. A few others sound hilarious.

    Definitely will add them on. I've heard of this author but not read reviews of her books before.

  4. Kathy, even though this is a historical mystery, I have a feeling you'll enjoy it.

    Her previous fiction books are quite funny and entertaining.

  5. I have concluded, Yvette, that you must be a speed reader, as in Evelyn Wood. True?

  6. No, Mark. Far from it.

    In fact, I used to read much quicker than I do now. When I was younger and more spry. :)

    I just make the time to read.

  7. I HAVE to read What Alice Knew! I love Jack the Ripper stories, Henry James, Oscar Wilde -- it sounds fabulous. I'm going out tomorrow to find it! Great list, Yvette...

  8. Go to it, girl! You'll love it!

  9. I'm a big Henry James fan so I'll be looking for this book. Nice review!

  10. Mark again. It's just as well. I did take the Evelyn Wood Speed-Reading Course when I was in high school, and though my reading comprehension was good at the faster rate, I discovered that I really wanted to slow down and savor great scenes. In fact, if a paragraph or page resonates with me, I'll come to a complete stop to dwell upon it.

  11. Thanks George. Let us know if you like the book. :)

  12. I do that too, Mark. I stop and reread passages all the time. In fact, if I find myself hurrying it's either because I want to find out what happens next OR I'm on the verge of skimming - not a good thing.

  13. If you like fictional takes on the James family, Colm Toibin's THE MASTER is excellent. I love the way Toibin shows that little events would bear fictional fruit decades later in James's writing.

    On another note: Please, please, please don't waste a moment of your intellect believing Patricia Cornwell's nonsense about Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper. So much of her "case closed" proof relies on her utter lack of understanding of how upper-class Brits spoke and wrote to one another in the late 1800s. (She claims Sickert must have been in England at the time of one of the murders because his wife wrote in a letter from France that he'd gone to see "his people"--when, in fact, he'd gone to see his family who were at that moment twenty miles away in Paris.) Please don't bother with trashy theories from people with too much money and not enough understanding. Plus, as an artist yourself, I'm sure you don't approve of Cornwell trying to purchase Sickert's work so that she could take the canvases apart for DNA analysis.

    /Dismonting soapbox now!

  14. Sorry--I was so eager to make my comment about Patricia Cornwell, I didn't see that you'd already referenced Colm Toibin's excellent book.

    BTW, THE GOLDEN BOWL ties with THE WINGS OF THE DOVE for my favorite Henry James's novel. I always tell people who haven't read much Henry James to start with TGB.

  15. Deb: Thanks for your input on James. I wasn't sure which book to read first and I'm glad I picked your favorite by sheer chance.

    As for the Patricia Cornwell thing, well, I keep an open mind.

    Walter Sickert does seem likely but six of one, half a dozen of the other. There's the theory too of the Royal connection - the mad man in the palace. It's amazing to me that after all these years we're not really any wiser to the truth.

    I like Paula Marantz Cohen's solution though, if you read between the lines, it's not really a definitive one.

    I'd love to know what you think of this book, Deb, if you get a chance to read it.

  16. This library has What Alice Knew, which I put on hold. The Jessie Kaplan book doesn't circulate, so I'll have to find it somewhere.

    Is What Alice Knew funny?

    And I guess I could count it as a historical book, but not vintage since it was written recently.

    What is the cutoff for vintage books?

    Thanks for the suggestions. I have to find that Jessie Kaplan book. I know it'll be hilarious.
    And Jewish humor: I love it. Grew up with it. I laugh at the thought.

  17. Am reading about the James siblings trying to solve the Jack the Ripper case. Marantz Cohen is brilliant at writing dialogue for the three siblings and for Oscar Wilde. That I'm enjoying and laughing at.

    I am skipping over the gruesome parts about the Jack the Ripper killings. Too gory for me.

    But all of the interaction among Alice, Henry and Will is so much fun, and Oscar's quotes are excellent.

    A delightful book, chock full of intelligent writing.

    Can't wait to read about Jessie Kaplan, which is on my TBR list. May buy it used as the library only has large print for this one and NY Jewish humor goes a long way over here with my friends.

  18. Kathy I'm thrilled that you're liking this book. I loved it and never wanted to see it end. I love that world of theirs. :)

    Such a terrific book.

  19. Am finding the parts about the extreme poverty in London at that time very hard to read about, especially affecting children.

    But that was the reality. There were no social services or programs.

    It sent me to the Internet to read more about that period in London, with the arrival of Irish and Jewish immigrants, the lack of jobs and any public assistance.

  20. Oh it was a wretched time for the poor. Heartbreaking, really. But eventually things began to change.


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