Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen

Ms Marantz has brought together the characters of the author Henry James, his doctor brother William and their sister Alice, into the Victorian thriller story of the Whitechapel murders of the 1888.

The three siblings with their various idiosyncrasies add colour and entertainment to the story. Henry the self- opinionated and in many ways shallow writer, whom I liked as he was well meaning and harmless in his conceits. William the self-effacing medical man who still grieves for the loss of his baby son and Alice, who, to save herself the trouble of visiting her friends and relations, decides to become an invalid so they all have to pay court to her as she reclines in bed.

William is enlisted from his sanitised world of medical academia in America to assist Scotland Yard in their hunt for The Ripper. Alice decides that she is best placed to work out the identity of the man all London wants to find, so she sets her brothers to accumulate clues and information that she can seive through to solve the crime.

Among the contemporary characters the James’ siblings discuss and some they entertain, are John Singer Sergeant, Oscar Wilde, George du Maurier, Ellen Terry and Mark Twain. Alice develops an affinity for Walter Sickert, who also has a keen interest in the murders, and she asks him to paint her portrait.

The investigation itself takes a while to get underway, as the author likes to set scenes of intellectual discussion about social mores of the times, recent developments in psychology and commonplace attitudes toward the working class. Her research is extensive but sometimes the narrative is dragged down by the minutiae of everything circa 1888.

Two incidents add tension at the beginning of the story, an enigmatic gentleman who helps Henry into a carriage when he has gorged himself at a dinner party and collapses in the street. Then Henry narrowly escapes being pushed in front of a speeding curricle. When William and Henry enter the East End, they are taken aback that the ‘ignorant classes’ are suspicious of authority and less than eager to co-operate with their questions.

William develops an attraction for a beautiful woman, though in a typical male manner he also expresses jealousy of Alice’s attentions to Mr Sickert. His interest in psychology means he delves into his motivation, his attitude to his own ‘Alice’ at home in America and Alice’s reasons for her attraction to Mr Sickert. Unfortunately this tends to get very heavy and is a distraction from the original plot, turning this work into less a work of fiction and rather an academic and social exercise.

Alice does prove very observant with the clues the brothers supply, spotting minor details which I feel only a woman would notice, like the quality of notepaper etc. I did enjoy the atmospheric Victorian world in which these characters exist and their observations about themselves and each other are very entertaining. There is a scene with a spiritualist which was particularly amusing.

I didn’t expect a conclusive solution to this story as there wasn’t one in real life, but even so the end was unsatisfactory in its vagueness.

Ms Marantz Cohen says at the beginning that she wrote the book to bring life to historical characters and events. She has certainly done that, and as a slice of Victorian life this book is fascinating, but you won't find out the identity of Jack The Ripper.

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