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The Mystery of Alice and Her Brothers

February 2, 2012

What Alice Knew

“Henry James was drunk.”

So begins an entertaining literary mystery by Paula Marantz Cohen, What Alice Knew (Sourcebooks, 2010), set in 1888 London during the rampage of Jack the Ripper. Cohen’s animating conceit is that the baffled London police call in the famous American psychologist-philosopher William James for consultation. This puts William in the same city as his brother, the novelist Henry, and their sister Alice, a professional invalid, and the three collaborate in the investigation.

The notion of police employing a psychologist/spiritualist/weirdo is commonplace now, at least in fiction. On TV there’s the popular series The Mentalist, among others. In print, Caleb Carr’s 1994 mystery bestseller, The Alienist, sets up a team of a psychologist, a writer, and a secretary to investigate a serial killer in 1896 New York.

Cohen’s basic set-up is far from original, then. But her Jameses, as eccentric as they are famous, become as psychologically interesting as the killer they track. Alternating their points of view, Cohen allows each to contribute a unique perspective to the investigation. The style is fluid, and the dialogue sparkles. Minor characters like Oscar Wilde and John Singer Sargent step in to enhance the ambiance. Sly humor undercuts the characters’ pretenses, especially Henry’s; the poor chubby aesthete never quite recovers from that classic opening line.

After the recent speculation on the Jameses, Cohen could have made their own relationships as lurid as the Ripper’s slashings. It’s to her credit, I think, that she does NOT put William in bed with Alice, Henry with the male artists’ model, or Alice with her devoted live-in companion. Cohen’s Jameses flout Victorian convention only in their unconventional thinking, which in itself offers plenty of sizzle for this fine novel.

A few announcements to conclude this post:

  • The second installment of my story “End of the Ride” is up at The Piker Press. In place of similar annoying advertisements for the third and fourth parts, I’ll direct anyone who’s interested to this link to a page that should list each section as it becomes available.
  • My story “MG Repairs,” which came out in Carve Magazine in 2010, will be included in the magazine’s 2009–2010 Anthology. Why two years late? Because editor Matthew Limpede has a sensible approach to the absurd rush of our lives. Myself, I favor setting the clock back to 1993.
  • My novel The Shame of What We Are is now available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Everybody who’s not reading it in paperback can now not read it on a screen as well. But they’ll be missing the wonderful illustrations by Tom Jackson, which come out surprisingly well in the e-book.
  • “Wright has found a way to wed fragments of an iconic America to a luminously strange idiom, eerie as a tin whistle, which she uses to evoke the haunted quality of our carnal existence.” So said The New Yorker about poet C. D. Wright, who will be reading on February 2 at Villanova University’s Literary Festival. I love tin whistles. Complete info. about the festival, which will include William Kennedy and several other luminaries, is available here.
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