Online book stores make it easy to buy eBooks, sometimes a single click will do the job. I was on Amazon looking for a novel about the life of Alice Liddell, the precocious child of Charles Dodgson’s Alice in Wonderland. I had read a NY Times review, in Fiction Chronicle, and thought that the Alice’s life might make interesting reading. Searching the Kindle book shelves for “Alice” I uncovered a totally different book—What Alice Knew, a mystery novel in which Henry James, the noted author, and his siblings William and Alice attempt to solve the infamous mystery of Jack the Ripper. This was to good to pass up, so one-click latter I was reading the opening chapter on my iPad.
William James was a renowned psychologist in America and the English detective in charge of the Ripper murders called him over to England to help build a psychological profile of the killer. Henry, the writer, and Alice, a bedridden hypochondriac and diarist, were living in London and the three James siblings form a team bent on solving the nearly hopeless murder case. The author leads the characters to a probable solution and in the course informs the reader a little about each of the three James siblings, English social norms, and the role of women in late 19th century society. Quite well done and exciting also—blood and gore, as one would expect in a Jack the Ripper investigation. This is as good a historical detective novel as I’ve read.
I was aware of Henry James from his reputation, but had never read any of his novels. I had however watched parts of the BBC TV renderings of The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl. Neither of which held my interest. There was a long, well written piece on Henry and his career on Wiki, which I dutifully read to better understand the historical aspect of the mystery.
Many of Henry James’ novels are available on the web for free download; I downloaded The Ambassadors, which James claimed was his best work, from Google Books. The Google copy was a very poor scan from a much-underlined edition in the Harvard Library. It was interesting to look at the student’s scribbles, but hard to read. I discarded this free book and downloaded a really nicely done 1909 edition from Project Gutenberg. (This edition even had the prefaces and a table of contents, nice work, Gutenberg.)
The Ambassadors eBook was created from the 1909 print edition which was in two volumes, each with 6 books of 1-3 chapters. The chapters were originally published as a serial. The chapters made for convenient reading on the iPad, but the story progressed too slowly for my tastes. James wrote with a good deal of atmosphere and his characters agonized over every decision. I read Volume I and stopped. Enough! Another DNF, Did not Finish, in my library.
Reading The Ambassadors, although unfinished, did increase my appreciation of Henry James—he writes wonderfully evocative and atmospheric prose, but the pace is leisurely at least when compared to detective stories. For now, I’ll stick to the Detective genre.
Day 17: What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper (Paula Marantz Cohen) (2010).