Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book Review: What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen

Title: What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper
Author: Paula Marantz Cohen
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publishing Date: September 10, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4022-4355-4
Pages: 352
Price: $14.99 US/$17.99 Can

From the Publisher:
What is an American writer, a master in his own mind but less regarded by his peers, to do in 1880's London? If you are Henry James, it means frequent dinner parties with the likes of Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, and George du Maurier, eating too much while suffering barbs and engaging in sily repartee. But when Henry's brother William-a professor at Harvard renowned for his groundbreaking work in the new science of psychology-is summoned from America by Scotland Yard to help investigate an East End serial killer who calls himself "Jack the Ripper," things become suddenly more exciting.

Not to take a back seat to her more famous brothers, Henry and William's invalid sister Alice takes on the role of lead detective as the three precocious siblings attempt to unravel the true identity of the killer. Searching London high and low, encountering characters both suspicious and ridiculous along the way, they inch closer to a kiler neight they, nor modern readers, would ever suspect.

With a pitch-perfect knowledge of the period and the players, Cohen, who has had a successful writing career in fiction with alternative takes on literary classics, captures a colorul Victorian London and its environs. The action ranges from lavish dinner parties, music halls, and seances to Whitechapel slums, the Slade School of Art, and the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, in this delightful take on one of America's greatest literary families and one of England's most terrifying killers.

About the Author:
Paula Marantz Cohen is a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Jane Austen in Boca, Jane Austen in Scarsdale, and Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and four scholarly works of nonfiction, includeing Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism, Silent Film and the Truimph of the American Myth, and The Daughter's Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel. Paula is also the host of The Drexel Interview, a cable TV show based in Philadelphia.

My review:
This book was right down my alley as it combined a literary figure, London as a setting, and great writing. I have been fascinated with the case of Jack the Ripper since I traveled to England. One Saturday night, I engaged in a London walk where Jack the Ripper was the subject and the tour guide took us to each spot in London that a body was found in this case. It was dark, mysterious, and even a little scary as you made that walk and thought of what happened all those years ago on the very spots you were walking. Cohen brings this case to life while using characters, that one might not expect, to try and solve the mystery. Although there are many theories as to who Jack the Ripper was, it has never been proven. I urge you to read this book and follow the journey of the James' as they search and theorize on who they think he is. The pages will keep you in suspense and guessing at what is going to happen next.