By Paula Marantz Cohen
Sourcebooks. 341 pp. $14.99
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Reviewed by Susan Balée
Paula Marantz Cohen's new novel had me at hello: "Henry James was drunk."
So begins a wonderful romp through 1888 London with novelist Henry, his brilliant invalid sister Alice, and famous big brother William uniting to catch the bloodiest murderer of the era: Jack the Ripper.
The novel opens after Jack has hacked up five prostitutes in the East End of London. Scotland Yard is mystified. The London commissioner of police, desperate to end the carnage, writes to William - the Harvard University professor who's just invented psychology - and asks him to cross the pond and help. It's a plum premise for a novel, and Cohen, a Drexel professor who has already reinvented three Jane Austen plots to great acclaim, does it proud.
What Alice Knew works on a number of levels. It's a fast-paced mystery novel, it's funny, and it perfectly captures, in dialogue and action, the personalities of its main characters. Like most siblings, the three Jameses love and irritate one another. William suffers from morbid memories, Henry resents his know-it-all big brother, and Alice has been bedridden since the death of their father but still manages to boss her brothers around.
When William is given some of the Ripper's letters to examine, Alice tells him what he should be looking for. William haughtily responds that he's a trained researcher. Yes, but not in murder investigations, she says. William tries a withering "And you are?" but she's ready for him:
"No," acknowledged Alice, "but I've had more time to think about it. I lie in bed and imagine what might have happened. I have been doing such things since childhood."
"Are you saying that you have feared being murdered by us?" Henry laughed.
"Yes, and of murdering you," she added gravely. "It is in the nature of the nervous invalid to create such extreme scenarios. We get ill because imagining them is enough to scare us out of all action."
William considered the comment. "And Jack the Ripper is somehow empowered to live out the fantasy that frightens the neurasthenic. He is the obverse of what you are, your imagination turned real."
"Yes," said Alice, "which is why I am the person to catch him."
Alice has one method; her brothers have others. Henry, a habitué of the best dinner parties - Cohen expertly channels the repartee of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and John Singer Sargent, among others - gives one himself to lure the Ripper. Unfortunately, Henry is at the mercy of the Smiths, his lazy husband-and-wife team of servants, and the dinner they orchestrate is more Dickensian than Jamesian:
Dinner was served. Mrs. Smith had paid no attention to the diagram, so the forks and spoons were in the wrong order. Mr. Smith, breathing heavily and limping (he had both asthma and gout), began pouring the wine from the right. The soup was brought in; it was tepid and was followed by trout that had not been properly deboned. . . . and the prospect of bones in the fish immediately set Henry's nerves on edge. . . . The idea of choking to death in the presence of Jack the Ripper struck him as particularly infelicitous.
Ripperologists should love Cohen's twist on the killer's identity.
No one so far has been able to identify Jack the Ripper definitively, novelist Patricia Cornwell's claims notwithstanding. As anyone who examines the evidence soon realizes, however, the Victorian painter Walter Sickert has "prime suspect" written all over him. Sickert painted a macabre series called the "Camden Nudes" and claimed they were inspired by the murders. Another of his creepy paintings is a dark interior he titled Jack the Ripper's Bedroom. Was Sickert outing himself in his paintings?
In this novel, Alice James tests the Sickert theory by asking him to paint her portrait. Invalid that she is, she poses in her bed.
William, meanwhile, is pursuing another lead in London's thriving Jewish community. (One of the Ripper's letters claimed Jews were responsible for the killings.) William winds up befriending the vibrant Abrams family (described so well by Cohen, I thought they, too, were real people) and falling for their gorgeous daughter Ella. Meanwhile, he continues to believe "the perverse impulses that resulted in criminal behavior must . . . have utility for the criminal, as a response to trauma or stress. . . . The key was to find the context in which the behavior appeared logical, even necessary."
In the end, Cohen - and the James siblings - unlocks the mystery. The unexpected conclusion jolted me and proves that Cohen, with all her literary and comic gifts, can also empower a mystery novel. From the allusive title (a play on Henry's novel What Maisie Knew) to the pitch-perfect dialogue (from Cockney to nob), Cohen wears her learning lightly. What Alice Knew is a Victorian confection to savor and to share.