Sunday, May 15, 2011

What Alice Knew: Review

What a fantastic book! I haven't had a book snatch my attention and hold it like this for a long time. I started reading What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen last night. I snuggled down in bed with plenty of pillows and prepared to read just until I got sleepy. The next thing I knew it was 12:30 am. Not counting sleeping and chore-time, I read it straight through at a most amazing clip The historical details are right on target, the characters are interesting and engaging. And Cohen's solution is very convincing.

I had seen this book featured in reviews on several blogs and once I'd read the synopsis, I made sure that I didn't read any more because I was sure that I would want to read this one. Jack the Ripper is one true crime story that I can read about...if too much of the gruesome details are given, I just skim over them. I am fascinated at the number of solutions that have been offered over the years--some ingenious and some obviously not well-researched at all. I also am intrigued at the way the Ripper avoided capture and yet the crimes stopped. Various reasons have been offered for this--some more compelling than others. It is one of those historical moments that can be reinterpreted over and over again withoug losing any of its fascination.

Cohen has given us a well-researched look at the investigation from the viewpoint of the James family. Willaim, who is making a name for himself in the new field of psychology, is called in by Scotland Yard to examine the evidence and give his opinion of the psychological motives behind the horrible murders. His siblings, Henry and Alice James, soon offer their talents in the investigation. Henry mixes in society and, as an author, has a gift of understanding character. Alice has a sharp mind and, as an invalid, lots of time to apply it to the task. The three are soon led to believe that Jack will be found among the artistic classes.

The trio make a very credible "detective team" and Cohen makes them very real, three dimensional characters. There is sibling rivalry and real affection among them. In fact, all of her characters come to life under her pen and I was left wanting to know more about what happened to Archie, a street urchin picked up and given a job by William James in the course of the investigation. I became interested in all of the characters. Absolute first-rate story and a masterly handling of well-known events. Five stars.


Unknown said...

I love when a book captures me like that. Thanks for the enthusiastic review.

J F Norris said...

Wow. I usually abhor these Jack the Ripper stories. How many have been written now? They must fill an entire house. But this laudatory write-up certainly makes me want to stop everything and track down this book.

Nikki - Notes of Life said...

I don't think I've heard of this book before, but it certainly sounds like a good read. I like things like the Jack the Ripper cases.

Yvette said...

A great review, Bev. This book is near the top of my TBR Mountain, most especially because I've read Paula Marantz Cohen's previous books. (Two of them based on Jane Austen classics and one based on a Shakespeare's play.) I'm only familar with Cohen as a humorous writer, but this new book doesn't sound overly humorous. Still, I want to read it. It does sound very intriguing.

Thanks for the review. :)

neer said...

Really interesting.

Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

What a compelling review! I would have skipped right over this one if I saw it, mostly because of my distaste for Henry James, but now I will keep an eye out for it.

Thanks! And thanks for posting your 2011 "Best of" list so that I found this.