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What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper Paperback – September 1, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 54 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

At the request of Scotland Yard, American philosopher William James, an expert in the science of the mind, travels to London to assist in solving the Jack the Ripper case. Once in London, William has access to the evidence collected at the crime scenes, and he travels with Inspector Abberline to interview witnesses. He then shares the particulars of the case with his brother, novelist Henry, and his sister, Alice, who is bedridden but feels she can still contribute to the identification of the madman. The story is told from multiple points of view, and Cohen seamlessly blends fact and fiction into fascinating looks at late-nineteenth-century London, the Jack the Ripper case, and the lives of the James siblings. In addition, she weaves in provocative details about the philosophy, literature, and art of the era and makes room for cameo appearances by such real-life figures as Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, and Walter Sickert, once thought a suspect in the Ripper killings. For fans of historical fiction as well as historical mysteries. --Sue O'Brien

Review

"Cohen seamlessly blends fact and fiction into fascinating looks at late nineteenth-century London, the Jack the Ripper case, and the lives of the James siblings."

"the author does a good job of evoking the grimness of everyday life in the Whitechapel slums."

"An imaginative foray into historical fiction... [What Alice Knew] should reel in students of literature... [and] devotees of period pieces and mysteries."
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The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark; 1 edition (September 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1402243553
  • ISBN-13: 978-1402243554
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.5 x 7.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,483,493 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Luanne Ollivier on September 13, 2010
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper is Paula Marantz Cohen's first novel. The plotline is luscious for any lover of historical fiction or mystery. The three James siblings- Henry the mildly successful author, William the brilliant psychologist and Alice the keenly observant invalid- investigate the Jack the Ripper murders as they take place, trying to determine through psychology and social observation who must have committed the murders.

Sounds exciting, right? Unfortunately, I don't think it was nearly as exciting as it could have been. I admit I haven't read too many of Henry James' books, but The Turn of the Screw is one I read several years ago and still serves to give me a deliciously creepy shiver up and down my back when I think of it. James was a master of the unreliable narrator and wrote amazingly well. In this book, he was portrayed as an insecure, fat alcoholic who just wanted the approval of his elder brother. It's possible that Henry James did feel insecure and maybe he was an alcoholic and quite possibly he wanted his older brother to like him. But there was also keen insight, wittiness and a very real kind of genius in him and I don't think Cohen brought that out at all. Nor does she allow us to see Henry's neuroses develop. She tells us flat out exactly what Henry thinks. For example:

"But William had always treated him dismissively, had viewed his life as frivolous, and had denigrated his writing, if only by failing to read it. These things pained Henry deeply, though he pretended not to care. For more even than social acclaim and fortune, more even than literary immortality, he desired the good opinion of his older brother.
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Format: Paperback
This book is a page turner. It is a mystery; it is a historical period piece; it is a piece of literary and cultural criticism. It makes a famous family--as well as some ancillary characters on the London scene at the fin of the last siecle--come alive. Henry, William, and especially Alice James are beautifully limned, and Cohen is adept at capturing the cultural and aesthetic issues and tensions of the Aesthetic movement. When Jack the Ripper (whoever he may have been) can enter the world of fiction and keep a reader's attention as forcefully as fictional characters, and real ones do, you know you are in the presence of a writer of sophistication, depth and substance. Also of wit and suspense.
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In this historical mystery, Henry James, his sister Alice and his brother William try to solve the identity of Jack the Ripper. William lives in America but has come to London at the request of Scotland Yard to help them solve these crimes, using his psychological training. Alice, who is bedridden is determined to help, using information from William's investigation and Henry's observations. Other historical figures also make appearances: Mark Twain, John Singer Sergeant, Oscar Wilde, and Walter Sickert.

The story is told through the eyes of each of the James'. I loved being in London, 1888. The author did a fantastic job of creating that atmosphere; the art, the literature,the theater, and of making real characters come alive in this fictional novel.
I thought the author also nicely portrayed how politics played a role in the search for the killer and how the police looked at psychology as an investigative tool at that time.Though mostly bedridden, one does not feel sorry for Alice, she is very smart and is happy with her life. She definitely knows how to keep her brothers in line as they argue about who Jack's real identity is. The dialogue is sharp and witty and clever.

What Alice Knew is an interesting look at one of history's biggest mysteries, while being very entertaining. I don't know how factual the book actually is, but I don't really care. It kept me engaged and interested.

my rating 4/5
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