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What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of…

What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper (2010)

by Paula Marantz Cohen

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2232577,557 (3.42)37
  1. 10
    Drood by Dan Simmons (Caramellunacy)
    Caramellunacy: Both are Gothic 'gaslight' thrillers featuring famous authors as protagonists. Drood is a macabre story of what ostensibly inspired Dickens to write his last unfinished novella (according to his ever-unreliable friend Wilkie Collins). What Alice Knew features the James siblings (psychologist William, author Henry and their invalid sister) as they attempt to puzzle out who is responsible for the Ripper murders.… (more)
  2. 00
    The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (Cecilturtle)

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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Despite both the title and the cover copy (the blurb on this site is much better), Alice is not the main character. She shares that honor equally with her two brothers, William and Henry James. What William, Alice, and Henry combined knew eventually adds up to a solution to Jack the Ripper's identity. (I don't know enough about current scholarship to know if this solution holds actual water, but it hangs together well enough for the purposes of the narrative.)

Unfortunately, there are hurdles for the reader in reaching that solution, not just for the characters, starting with Henry's introduction. When readers first meet him, he has overindulged in a couple ways at a dinner party and is unable to comprehend much of what is going on around him. So he decides to walk home, naturally gets lost, and then loses control of multiple bodily functions. Ew and ugh. This is decidedly not my favorite way to introduce a character ever, and it made it very difficult to relate to him in later chapters, because I just kept thinking about -- well, I'll leave it at 'ew.'

But I had borrowed this book from a friend to whom I'd mentioned that it looked interesting, so I kept going. Then I met Alice, the convalescent woman who would solve the mystery! Only.... her convalescence is portrayed as more the result of personality quirk than physical affliction and possibly even a weakness of character. Even Alice herself acknowledged that keeping to her bed was in part affectation - though the headaches seemed real enough. So while the cover hinted at a capable yet disabled character, I'm not sure that's what the text provided (there may be an argument to be made that she had a real albeit undiagnosed psychological disorder -- however, one might expect her brother William, an early psychologist, to suggest the possibility). Also, I just plain didn't like Alice very much for the first half of the book. My opinion started to change when she started having people other than her brothers and Katherine to interact with, particularly Jane. I liked Jane.

Which brings me to William, the brother who was still living in America. (Both Alice and Henry had moved to London well before the novel begins.) William was invited to assist in the Jack the Ripper investigation -- and the other Jameses invited themselves along for the ride. William has an odd interlude of exoticising/eroticising a young Jewish woman whom he met during his investigation which I found uncomfortable to read but understandable, I suppose, for a man of his time even if he is being written in the modern day. Speaking of uncomfortable, that brings me to the weird push-pull between Anglophilia and American Exceptionalism that ran throughout the book. I think that tension was most pronounced in William's chapters -- I am hoping so, because as a character trait it's slightly interesting, because then that makes it intentional.

I did enjoy the revelation, climax, and epilogue. But I found too much of the book wordy* and uninteresting** to recommend.

* William's visit to one of the Ripper's crime scenes includes paragraphs of reverie on the mind's inability/unwillingness to accept the horror of what the eyes see. (The squeamish will probably appreciate the relative paucity of descriptions for the other senses in the scene.)

** Dinner parties, interesting. Dinner party planning (with discussion of characters the readers don't know and won't really get to know), uninteresting. ( )
  akaGingerK | Sep 30, 2018 |
Very entertaining story involving the James siblings and a wide assortment of art and literati of the period. Almost everyone has a theory about Jack the Ripper...this was no more compelling than any other but I truly enjoyed the interaction between Henry, William, and Alice James. ( )
  Oodles | Feb 16, 2016 |
It took awhile to get through this book. It seemed to bog down in so many spots that I found it tedious to read. The subtitle states A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. I think William James played a much larger part in the book. His sister Alice is also a character but her part in solving the crime was insignificant. I liked that Walter Sickert was a suspect in this story as he was a suspect in the real ripper murders. I have read other fictional tales about Jack the Ripper that were much more interesting. ( )
  bnbookgirl | Sep 17, 2015 |
Professor of philosophy/psychology, William James (author Henry James' brother) lives and teaches in the United States but is asked to come to London to help with the Jack the Ripper case. Henry also wants to help, as does their invalid sister, Alice, who is confined to her home.

It was ok, but anytime there was any focus that wasn't on Jack the Ripper, I got bored. The dialogue seemed very pretentious or maybe just too intellectual for me or something. I also had trouble getting past William being able to bring bits of evidence home to show Henry and Alice for discussion. Although I have at least one more fictional Jack the Ripper book on my tbr, I'm thinking the nonfiction is actually more interesting to read about than the fictionalized versions. ( )
  LibraryCin | Sep 7, 2015 |
A fun read! ( )
  maryintexas39 | Jul 20, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
What Alice Knew is very good fun. It has Victorian London, it has fog and gaslight, it has dubious spiritualism and it has science. It has bungling officialdom and it has spectacular murders. But most of all, it has the James geniuses, and their interplay, rivalries and affections, accompanied by dialogue that usually convinces and occasionally sparkles. What a good time Paula Marantz Cohen must have had writing it.
Cohen piques the curious mind at the beginning, slows to a philosophical discourse, and surprises with a carefully woven, good old fashioned whodunnit.
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To Alan, my first story man.
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Henry James was drunk.
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An invalid for most of her life, Alice James, sister to author Henry James and alienist William James, helps her brothers track Jack the Ripper.

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