Tuesday, September 7, 2010

a review of "What Alice Knew" [68]

 What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Sourcebooks Landmark, ISBN 978-1402243554
September 7, 2010, 352 pages

The London of 1888 was an often brutal, violent place, but even still, the city was shocked by the terrible serial killer that appeared to be stalking their city..
"the cruel and repulsive Whitechapel murders, the devilish work of a creature...who calls himself Jack the Ripper."
The police have had no shortage of suspects, some following bizarre theories, but none has panned out, and now, a bit desperate for a solution, they take an unusual move and request the assistance of William James, an expert in the new science of psychology. At the time a professor at Harvard, he arrives in London to consult, but he is hardly without his own helpers there. London is the home of his brother, the author Henry James and their sister, the professional invalid..and essayist, Alice. Each will bring their own strengths to the investigation and will uncover some facts and ideas missed by the police. As Alice says,
""It occurred to me, as I read William's letter, that the solution to these horrific crimes requires the three of us. 'Tri-ocular vision' as I would call it" She paused, as if working out an equation. "Henry, to observe the social world where I sense the murderer 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 ashed in amused wonder. "What will you do?"
"Me?" She leveled her intelligent gaze at her brothers. I will review what you
gather...and solve the case."
But in the process, will they be placing their own lives in danger from the Ripper?

The premise of the book is interesting and the appearance of any number of famous historical figures, all part of the social circle of the James siblings, is quite entertaining. From Oscar Wilde, Samuel Clemens and John Singer Sargent to one of the police detectives that was actually involved in the investigation, Inspector Abberline, any number of characters cross the pages. Our visits to a number of interesting landmarks of Victorian England, from the lavish dining rooms of the rich and famous to the horrible slums where the murder were taking place to the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, was perhaps one of my favorite part of the book, so very well portrayed by the author.  And the line of investigation the James siblings pursue is also interesting and believable and is, in fact, one others have followed.

On the more negative side, one problem I had with the book is that the lead character, William James, is not the most likable person. In his relationship with his siblings he is often a bit of a bully, and if you follow his ideas in the book, he is often following the wrong track, corrected by yes, What Alice Knew. Yes, maybe that is the point of the book, but still, when William was attacked...well, I would not have been too sad to see him as another victim of the Ripper. Gosh, is that a bit harsh? For that matter, the other two James siblings are not the most sympathetic characters either, so it was a bit hard to fins someone to pull for while reading the book.

The story gets off to a great start, slows quite a bit in the middle where we become a bit too involves in William's personal issues, and then races on to a surprising satisfactory conclusion. Surprising because, of course, the real identity of the Ripper was never found out for certain. Nevertheless, I think the author came up with a reasonable..and interesting...solution. Maybe not one experts on the subject will except..but interesting.

If you enjoy books about Jack the Ripper, books that explore Victorian London or just a good mystery, especially one populated with a number of real historical figures, this is a book you will want to check out.

For some additional reviews, check out...
Book Girl of Mur-y Castell
Devourer of Books

My Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for an ARC of this book.


  1. I generally don't like it either when the lead character isn't likable (which kind of restricts the appeal of a lot of books for me!)

  2. After all these years there is still such a fascination for the identity of Jack the Ripper. It's too bad the book flagged in the middle but at least the ending was intriguing if you accept or not the "solution". It sounds like the atmosphere and setting were very well done. Glad you enjoyed the book.

  3. I'm a Jack the Ripper junkie and I've read many books about the Victorian time period. I'll have to try this one.

    And on another topic, do you understand the whole "back of a woman" or "headless woman" or "back of woman's head" trend for book covers? I wonder how long that will last. I'm kind of sick of it! LOL

  4. yes, the unlikable protagonist is a problem..

    but yes, I did like the atmosphere and I thought it was well done.

    Kay, I DO NOT understand the headless woman book covers and it annoys me to NO END. quite honestly, it could keep me from reading a book.

  5. I don't like ass-ish protagonists but I might be able to overlook it because anything to do with Ripper is like candy for me. It is about more than the Ripper himself, but the whole atmosphere around those events that make the topic so addictive.

  6. This is the second review I've read for this and I'm thinking it definitely needs to go on my list. I do love a good historical mystery.

  7. I don't think I've ever read a book about Jack the Ripper but I have always been fascinated by the story. This sounds good to me.

  8. Lol, you are so right, William wasn't that great, like when he wanted to take such a wrong turn with Jewes, and ALice told him straight. Henry was weird too.

  9. Sounds like a good take on the whole Ripper thing ... but not a good sign when you wish the main character gets murdered!

  10. the thing is, I think they were all pretty weird in RL..lol

  11. Lol, I guess they were, I did google them to see if they were that weird. Why I don't think Alice is the most strange beats me..since she never got up from bed


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