Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen

(from Goodreads):  An invalid for most her life, Alice James is quite used to people underestimating her. And she generally doesn't mind. But this time she is not about to let things alone. Yes, her brother Henry may be a famous author, and her other brother William a rising star in the new field of psychology. But when they all find themselves quite unusually involved in the chase for a most vile new murderer-one who goes by the chilling name of Jack the Ripper-Alice is certain of two things: No one could be more suited to gather evidence about the nature of the killer than her brothers. But if anyone is going to correctly examine the evidence and solve the case, it will have to be up to her.


What Alice Knew is a fascinating take on Jack the Ripper's murders. It centres on three James siblings who are trying to find the murderer, each contributing their own unique view to the joint effort.

William James, brother of the American writer Henry James, is asked to help with Jack he Ripper's murders by the Scotland Yard for his psychological and medical expertise.

William's work on the case immediately piques the interest of his brother and sister. Whilst William takes a scientific approach, Henry offers a different view on the matter with the keen eyes of an artist. Their sister, Alice, provides yet another take on the case from a female point of view.

Alice James spends most of her days in bed due to an illness, though it is suggested several times that her illness is not so much of a physical state as it is a mental one – she has made a choice to confine herself to bed, thus finding a comfortable life alongside her companion Katherine. However, Alice is not a hypochondriac. She is a quite content person. Her room is her refuge from unwanted attention, though she is not at all a loner. She is loved and cherished for her intelligence and wit by her friends, who visit her often, or else they maintain regular correspondence through letters.

In the end, as the title suggests, it is Alice, who finds the right lead to the murderer. The solution is surprisingly logical, although it couldn't be foreseen, which proves the strength of Cohen's mystery writing. When it comes to mystery and crime, I prefer the books that leave the reader just as much in the dark as the characters are, and What Alice Knew is exactly this kind of book.

The novel is a treasure chest of artistic personages of the time; basically everyone makes an appearance, from writers, such as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, to painters, musicians, and actors. Accordingly, Marantz Cohen's language is on a highly sophisticated level, yet not hard to understand. What Alice Knew has so many quotable parts that they could comprise a book on their own. Even though I stopped numerous times to reread an especially beautiful sentence or paragraph, Marantz's style is fluid and the book reads smoothly.

RECOMMENDATION: I would recommend What Alice Knew to fans of crime novels, historical fiction, and classics. I must warn, however, that the murders are described quite graphically, and there is some extra gore in other matters, so the book is not a suitable read for very sensitive people or at least not for reading before bed (I tend to dream about what I do before falling asleep, so I didn't read this one in the evenings.).

4 stars


  1. This seriously sounds like an interesting book. I am intrigued by Alice and her condition and her relationship with her brothers. Sounds like it's going to be a book I'll enjoy.

    1. The James' family dynamics is certainly intriguing. I hope you will enjoy it!

  2. I'm glad you liked it! It was really good and yes, strange, at times. Definitely a great read.


Don't hesitate to drop me a few strange new words! I'd love to hear what you think!