What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper
For anyone who reads and loves Henry James (as I do), the very title of this elegant mystery by Paula Cohen evokes contrasting emotions: gratified recognition (James’ novella “What Maisie Knew”) and skepticism (really, Jack the Ripper?). Against my initial reaction of an inward ladylike snort, I almost immediately found myself absolutely captivated by the James siblings—Henry, his philosopher brother William, and their invalid sister Alice—as they come to life in Cohen’s pages. William is invited by Scotland Yard as an early prototype of the modern psychological profiler to help investigate the infamous Whitechapel Murders. With Henry and Alice already resident in London, the three join forces to uncover the identity of the brutal killer. What could have been a preposterous fictional undertaking is from the first a deeply touching story about three very complex human beings, struggling to overcome and somehow resolve their individual pain, longings and life choices through work, love and attention to life’s psychological details.
Various other fin-de-siècle characters drift in and out: Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent and his sister Emily, Mark Twain, to name a few, adding wit and verve to the bright and brittle conversations over the sumptuous dinner tables of the Bloomsbury crowd of 1888 London. Cohen deftly weaves in references to various stories by Henry James and quotations from the somewhat dense philosophical studies of William, and decorates the plot twists with characters from paintings by Singer Sargent—a delight to the informed reader, and an incentive to discovery by those who wish to find out more. The novel is literary, philosophical, witty and thoroughly entertaining. Cohen, who has written novels treating both Austenian and Shakespearean themes in modern settings, has presented us with a new standard for the historical mystery story.