What Alice Knew

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WHAT ALICE KNEW: A MOST CURIOUS TALE OF HENRY JAMES & JACK THE RIPPER. By Paula Marantz Cohen, Naperville, IL, USA: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2010 [www.sourcebooks.com], softback, 341pp, ISBN: 9781402243554, $14.99, £7.88

This engaging novel opens with a dinner party attended by a somewhat inebriated Henry James, the American novelist, along with Oscar Wilde and other denizens of London literary and artistic community. If we were to mention that the conversation turns to those curious ‘Jack the Ripper’ letters, and that it is remarked that artist James McNeill Whistler is, like the writer of ‘Dear Boss’ letters, fond of a jolly ‘ha ha’ you might have an idea where the plot of this novel is headed. Writer Patricia Cornwell in her 2001 book, Jack the Ripper—Case Closed also made note of that coincidence, and that her suspect, expressionist artist Walter Sickert, had been a pupil of the ex-pat American artist. And indeed Sickert is a suspect in What Alice Knew—though, ultimately, not the person thought to have committed the murders.

The premise of the novel is an interesting one. Sir Charles Warren, anxious to have an advisor to the investigation into the vexing murders in the East End, writes to Harvard University, Boston, to engage the services of James’s brother, William James, the noted scientist and philosopher. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner feels that the James’s insights into the human mind could help the investigation. We should note, of course, that this plot line is a bit implausible given that London had its own students of the human mind, beginning with alienist Forbes Winslow, a man full of his own theories about the case. Suffice to say that Warren’s letter of invitation enables author Paula Marantz Cohen, a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, Philadelphia, to get William James over to London to assist the Yard investigation. There he will be very much ‘on the case’ along with his brother Henry and their thoughtful but bedridden sister Alice. The trio will solve the case for once and for all.

Dr Cohen has obviously read about the case and the research shows. She also knows a lot of relevant facts about London’s artistic and literary community and about London Jewish intellectuals that help to make for a lively and engaging narrative. On the other hand, some of her reading about the Whitechapel murders and the people involved is not totally assimilated or thought out.

William James arrives at Scotland Yard just over a week after the Eddowes murder. The hallways of the Met headquarters are characterized as ‘shabby.’ After a bit of delay until he establishes his credentials, he is shown into Sir Charles Warren’s salubrious quarters, where the police commissioner is sitting with a silver tray, an assortment of sandwiches, and a bottle of Scotch. Dr Cohen describes Warren as a tall man ‘with a profusion of medals and ribbons.’ Well, Sir Charles might have worn his British Army ribbons but on the other hand did he wear his soldier’s uniform while serving as head of the Met? That seems unlikely and even more unlikely that on a day to day basis he would wear the actual medals—the ribbons would suffice.

Abberline is in the same room at the meeting and is described as ‘a small man with a neatly trimmed mustache.’ Descriptions of Abberline that have come down to us describe a stocky man with something of a paunch. It’s unlikely that anyone would have called him ‘small’—though that description brings to mind how the writer of the Maybrick Diary characterizes Abberline as a ‘little man’. This makes one wonder whether Shirley Harrison’s The Diary of Jack the Ripper was on Dr Cohen’s reading list!

Despite Kate Eddowes being over a week dead, Professor James is invited along to the ‘London Mortuary’ to view her corpse which has been kept, he is told, ‘on ice’. When Abberline and the professor arrive at the mortuary, it’s a surprise then to the reader who has read about the case to find her described as being still hanging pegged to the wall, as she appears in one of the famous gruesome mortuary photographs! The scene seems implausible.

Part of the James family’s investigation of the case includes a comparison of letters written on Pirie company notepaper in an attempt to link Walter Sickert to the writing of Ripper letters and hence to the East End crimes. Clearly Dr Cohen is following Patricia Cornwell’s investigation of Sickert in this respect. The investigation of the Ripper case by the James family—Henry James, William James and Alice James—is an interesting concept but perhaps somewhat contrived as an entry in the Ripper fiction canon.

This review originally appeared in Ripperologist no. 119 March 2011. Copyright © 2011 Ripperologist.