Saturday, September 11, 2010

What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen

Has there ever been a more satisfactory villian than Jack the Ripper?  His identity as the first publicized serial killer, the depravity of his acts, and the fact that he was never conclusively identified has made his fame more eternal, as each person can configure the facts to fit their own ideas of who he must have been.

In What Alice Knew, Paula Marantz Cohen has contrucked an interesting premise in which the James siblings, Henry, William and Alice, come together to identify Jack the Ripper.  William has been asked by Scotland Yard to come over from America to lend his psychological expertise.  Henry is a member in good standing of London society, and his talent as a novelist often leads him to notice relationships that others are oblivious to.  Alice, their invalid sister, has necessarily concentrated her powers to delve into others' minds and thoughts.  Together they make a formidable team.

The facts of the Ripper's crimes are all here, but don't overwhelm the reader.  Other famous people make appearances, including Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, Samuel Clemens and James Whistler.  Each familiar name and the portrayal of their world helps the reader understand how shocking these crimes were and how they were the talk of every table and meetingplace in London.  Can William, James and Alice find a way to uncover the identity of this man before he kills again?

Cohen has created an intriguing world.  A Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, she has the necessary knowledge of the period to make a very believable world, from the cream of society to the servants who organize the lives of these men and women, to those unfortunates mired in poverty and brutish lives.  In addition, she knows the worlds of art, literature and education that give the book its realistic feel.  This book is recommended for mystery lovers and those interested in the James family and their social strata. 

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