09/20/2010 06:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Henry James Meets Jack the Ripper -- Maybe

Last night, after I finished reading Paula Marantz Cohen's What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper, I turned on the television to see that Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder was on. The movie was at the scene where Margot Mary Wendice asked Mark Halliday if he really believed in the perfect murder. Halliday replied, "Yes, absolutely. On paper, that is. And I think I could, uh, plan one better than most people; but I doubt if I could carry it out." He went on to explain why. "In stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don't... always."

How amusing, I thought, since I had just been considering Cohen's reason for writing such an intriguing mystery, one that had me playing an armchair detective, along with very real ones from history, until the last few pages. (My guess at who Jack the Ripper might be, at least in this work of fiction, was oh so wrong.)

Admittedly, I do not read many mysteries, but this particular one, which is steeped in history and offers another consideration on who the notorious murderer may have been, had me intrigued. Initially, I was less interested in the possibilities of Jack the Ripper and much more curious about Henry James and his siblings. I loved the fact that the author took the question, "Who from history would you invite for dinner?" and expanded it into an intelligent, fascinating novel, one that gives her much wiggle room to imagine how notables, including writers and artists, reflected on the possibility of just who Jack the Ripper was. However, the author's imagination was fueled by what had to have been extensive research and sharp knowledge of the era rich with such creative figures.

Cohen not only does a great service to those from history, but obviously has a good time doing so. It's as though she's imagining how delightful it would be to be a fly on the wall at a formal dinner hosted by Oscar Wilde where the guests include Henry James, Robert Browning, George du Maurier, John Singer Sargent, and Samuel Clemens. The very idea is titillating. Imagine, too, the egos in the room where James and Clemens, published under the nom du plume, Mark Twain, criticize each other's writing.

Yet, for history buffs, What Alice Knew offers another consideration on who the notorious murderer may have been, but explored as a delightful historical fiction. As it happens, I did many Google searches with the unfamiliar names in this novel, discovering that most of them were real people with real lives living during a time that was unsettled by Jack the Ripper. Halliday was right that "in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don't... always," but it's clear that Cohen relied on historical details to write this work while attempting to glean some possible answers from those who were actually there. By the time I turned to the last page, though, I was satisfied who Cohen revealed as the murderer, but wanted to know so much more about Henry James and his siblings, along with Walter Sickert, Sir Charles Warren, Nora Sidgwick, etc.; hence, the Google search. Here, fiction not only did a fabulous job making me curious about those who lived and breathed during the reign of Jack the Ripper, but made me appreciate the storyteller's ability to bring to life those long gone talented beings.