Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Musings: What Alice Knew

What Alice Knew:  A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper is Paula Marantz Cohen's first novel.  The plotline is luscious for any lover of historical fiction or mystery.  The three James siblings- Henry the mildly successful author, William the brilliant psychologist and Alice the keenly observant invalid- investigate the Jack the Ripper murders as they take place, trying to determine through psychology and social observation who must have committed the murders.

Sounds exciting, right?  And definitely right up my alley!  I was very excited to finally (and belatedly- sorry, Sourcebooks!) jump into this story.  Unfortunately, I don't think it was nearly as exciting as it could have been.

I admit I haven't read too many of Henry James' books, but The Turn of the Screw is one I read several years ago and still serves to give me a deliciously creepy shiver up and down my back when I think of it.  James was a master of the unreliable narrator and wrote amazingly well.  In this book, he was portrayed as an insecure, fat alcoholic who just wanted the approval of his elder brother.  It's possible that Henry James did feel insecure and maybe he was an alcoholic and quite possibly he wanted his older brother to like him.  But there was also keen insight, wittiness and a very real kind of genius in him and I don't think Cohen brought that out at all.  Nor does she allow us to see Henry's neuroses develop.  She tells us flat out exactly what Henry thinks.  For example:
He had achieved a modicum of success with his novels, and he had a profile of sorts in society.  But William had always treated him dismissively, had viewed his life as frivolous, and had denigrated his writing, if only by failing to read it.  These things pained Henry deeply, though he pretended not to care.  For more even than social acclaim and fortune, more even than literary immortality, he desired the good opinion of his older brother.
Really, I think this point would have been much better made through less obvious methods, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what must have been a very complex relationship between the two brothers.  And Cohen gives Alice and William the same treatment- we are told exactly what they think and feel in this heavy-handed manner and do not get the opportunity to draw our own conclusions.

And if that is how the story is just for character development, then I think you can guess that the murder mystery also proceeds at a somewhat clunky manner.  In many ways, I found the mystery investigation more interesting.  I liked the way the new and budding fields of psychology and photography were used.  But in general, this story did not grip me at all in the way one would expect a Victorian era novel featuring a family of famous siblings investigating one of history's most infamous serial killers to do.

Note:  I received this book for free to review.


  1. I'm sorry this didn't work as well as it could have. I actually thought it sounded really interesting, despite not really being into histfic or mysteries...

  2. The premise sounds intriguing and I admit to being a little excited when I first started reading this review, but the telling not showing drives me crazy and the fact that the mystery is so shoddily executed makes me think I probably wouldn't enjoy this one at all. It stinks really, because I love stories that speculate on the Jack the Ripper case and had high hopes for this one. Thanks for the honest review.

  3. It sure made me wonder who Jack really is, so wanna know!

  4. I liked this book but I had thought of it as more of a cozy mystery so my expectations weren't that high.

  5. I like the premise of this book but I'll probably give it a miss, as the heavy-handed treatment of the characters would most likely drive me nuts!

  6. Amanda- It DID sound interesting, which made it all the more disappointing.

    Zibilee- I agree. Telling not showing is just very clunky to read.

    Blodeuedd- Haha, so true! I want to know, too.

    Bookmagic- Oh, that makes sense. I didn't think of a cozy mystery mostly because it involved a serial killer, but I think that would definitely have brought my expectations down, too.

    Nymeth- Yes, I don't think you'd like it much :-)

  7. It does sound pretty factual though, from what I remember of Paul Fisher's bio of the James family. (House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family.)

    I'd think of it as a cozy mystery too, it's the fashion for historical figures to be portrayed as detectives, vampire slayers, werewolves. Gah.

  8. The premise sounded fascinating, but it is on the back burner for me. GREAT review.

  9. I hate it when a great premise doesn't live up to it's potential!

  10. Anonymous1/04/2011

    This looks really interesting too. I love books that try and mix reality with fiction, but it could also go so wrong. I might still have to check this out though.

    Btw, have you ever read Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mysteries (beginning with Cocaine Blues)? It's set in the 20s but in Australia. I've only read the first but it was pretty good.


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