In the dark and cold of winter, sometimes there is nothing like a good mystery. And for me, some of the best mysteries are the old Victorian sensation novels, Sherlock Holmes stories, and other historical mysteries. Even if something very terrible occurs in the plot, there is always that sense of reassurance that everything is going to turn out all right in the end. Even if the mystery novel features an actual unsolved crime in which the questions weren’t answered and the victims were never vindicated, somehow the fictional attempt to resolve the crime provides a feeling of reassurance. Paula Marentz Cohen’s novel What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper attempts to do this.
It is not Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson tracking down the Ripper, nor does the solution tie itself together as neatly as the elaborate plans and conspiracy theories in Murder by Decree do. Instead, American psychology pioneer Dr. William James is called in by Scotland Yard to assist in the Ripper investigation, and his brother, author William James, and his sister, invalid diarist Alice James, join in as well. It is Alice who devises the plan for the three of them to hunt for the Ripper. She tells her brothers:
It occurred to me… that the solution in these horrific crimes requires the three of us. ‘Tri-ocular vision,’ I would call it… Henry, to observe the social world where I sense the murderer lurks and to plumb his friends and acquaintances for gossip. William, to study the physical evidence and to supply psychological analysis where needed… I will review what you gather… and solve the case.
Cohen takes us through the glittering salons of the West End to the squalid streets of Whitechapel where a whore can be bought for a loaf of stale bread, and we meet a dazzling arry of characters along the way: Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, Mark Twain, Inspector Frederick Abberline, Sir Charles Warren, and the “talented but macabre” artist Walter Sickert. Not only is What Alice Knew a classic whodunnit, but it is also a work of historical fiction, as it seeks to explore the differences between social classes in Victorian London and provide some sympathy for the Ripper victims, who were the poorest of the poor and who were really victims of societal circumstances of the time.
Cohen has a new take on an old Ripper suspect who has been featured in at least one conspiracy theory (as is depicted in Murder by Decree) which has been debunked, and who has been named and dismissed numerous times as a suspect. It is suspenseful and page-turning, and danger is just as potent in the genteel parlors of upper-class London as it is in the twisting alleys of the East End. Yet its final climax and denouement leave as many unanswered questions as the real Ripper case itself did, and Cohen leaves it to the reader to decide the whys and wherefores of the murders and draw their own conclusions, just as the armchair detectives and Ripperologists do while studying the case today.