What Alice Knew, by Paula Marentz Cohen

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.


What Alice Knew, by Paula Marentz Cohen

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.

From left to right: Dr, John Watson (James Mason), Inspector Lestrade (Frank Finlay), and Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) at the Eddowes murder scene in the film Murder by Decree (1979).


Alice James
Alice James
Dr. William James
Henry James   
Henry James



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.

10 replies on “What Alice Knew, by Paula Marentz Cohen”

Oh, trust–there is more late Victorian/Sherlock Holmes/murder whodunnit goodness to come!  Espeically since my geeky self found out yesterday that Carole Nelson Douglas is working on getting her first 4 Irene Adler books published in ebook format; the last 4–including the 2 Ripper ones (with Nellie Bly!) are already available.

I just started laughing!  Yeah, Patricia Cornwell must think of him every day and kick herself that she wasted 6 milllion dollars to try and prove “through DNA evidence” that Sickert was her man.  All she proved was that he wrote a few crank letters.  Which was suspected already.

Love period pieces like this. Thank you for sharing it. Whenever I’m visiting someone in the hospital, I always carry a Sherlock Holmes book with me for the very reasons you mentioned at the beginning – for a sense of reassurance and that even in a chaotic world, there is meaning (even if it is only fictional).

Sherlock Holmes opened the doors into Victorian morbidity and a fascination with Victorian crime and the beginnings of present-day investigation methods for me.


There are a lot of pastiches out there featuring Sherlock Holmes hunting down the Ripper.  I loved Murder by Decree (Holmes is much more human in that movie), but Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler mysteries in which they team up to hunt the Ripper down in 2 books (with NELLIE BLY as a sidekick!) are well written too.  I am reading another one called Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye (author Melanie Clegg has reviewed it on her Madame Guillotine blog) which is Sherlock Holmes chasing Jack, too.

Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper seem to fit together in some way, probably because they were around at about the same time in history. They both belong to a Victorian time period that is more sordid than popular history would have us believe. I often use Holmes’ philosophy to solve some mundane mystery in my own life – Eliminate the impossible. Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It has found me my car keys many a time.

You might find this very interesting, as Conan Doyle was very much into spiritualism, but William James did look into some cases of mediums in the United States, and there was at least one he found to be quite plausible.  I will have to look into it further to find the info source, but it may be relevant to your interests.

Ahh, I am so thrilled!  This was a good book–and it is a different take on the suspect proposed.  Of course, what works in the world of fiction doesn’t work in real life, but somehow Cohen makes it work here.  And I love how she includes Wilde and even John Pizer.  Some of Henry’s inner thoughts are hilarious; you can tell who he does and doesn’t like.  And the war of words between him and Twain during a dinner is one of the best scenes.

But yes, reading Sherlock Holmes opened up a whole new world of morbidity for me.  Yup.

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