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Book Review: The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

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Jed Rubenfeld takes his place in literary entertainment with grand eloquence in his first novel, The Interpretation of Murder, published by Henry Holt. This dandy psychological murder mystery is chockfull of history, biography, and geography. This would overwhelm a lesser writer, but Rubenfeld’s mastery of the subject matter, pacing, and sheer storytelling verve propels the reader into New York 1909, and puts the reader into the chase for a vicious, sadistic killer.

The novel begins as Dr. Sigmund Freud arrives in New York to deliver a series of lectures on the – at that point – very controversial subject. Dr. Stratham Younger, an American psychoanalyst, is appointed by the university to act as liaison officer for Dr. Freud. Several key members of Freud’s group of therapists are with him, including Carl Jung, the father of psychoanalysis’s most ambitious student, who ultimately tries to overtake his mentor’s glory.

Soon after Dr. Freud’s arrival, Dr. Younger is summoned to a case involving an attack on 17-year-old Nora Acton, daughter to two influential people in the city’s high society circles. The victim of a sadist, Nora was choked, whipped, and cut with a knife. The experience has left her with amnesia and bereft of voice. Dr. Freud offers the opinion that her case would be an excellent choice for Dr. Younger.

As he pursues therapy with the young woman, Dr. Younger finds himself entranced with Nora’s beauty and vulnerability. However, Nora’s returning memory proves false when she accuses the mayor’s friend, George Banwell with attacking her. Banwell is a married man and a rejected suitor of Nora’s who – she says – won’t take no for an answer. However, the night Nora was attacked, Banwell has the perfect alibi: he was with the mayor.

The mystery continues getting richer and deeper as Littlemore proceeds on a parallel course that turns up other clues. As it turns out, Nora wasn’t the only woman attacked, tied up, strangled, and whipped in such a manner. At least one other woman was, and she’s now dead. However, her body has gone missing from the morgue. Littlemore doesn’t know if the corpse was sold to the medical schools or if its disappearance is part of a cover-up.

Rubenfeld sets each scene with deft assurance. While reading the novel, I easily could imagine the city. I stood on the docks and awaited Dr. Freud’s ship, and could even smell the man’s harsh cigar smoke. As the story progressed from the luxury hotels and high society events to the narrow, twisting alleys, and to houses of prostitution and police holding cells, those scenes filled without thousands of extras came alive.

In the afterword, Rubenfeld acknowledges using the New York City geography as he needed to, but very few changes took place. The book is elegantly resourced and researched according to the time, place, and social mores. Rubenfeld’s depiction of Freud is based on a familiarity with the man through a thesis he wrote while at Princeton. Later, at Julliard, Rubenfeld studied Shakespeare, and Hamlet – which maintains a presence throughout the novel as well – becomes a topic that will interest many readers even if they’re not well-versed in the subject.

Taking his marks from the current successful thriller-writers, Rubenfeld gracefully intertwines Dr. Stratham Younger’s first-person narrative with third-person viewpoints of other characters (including the marvelous Detective Littlemore). The book would have been interesting through the eyes of Dr. Younger alone, but by building in the larger cast of characters, each with their own parts to play, the story takes on added dimensions that really incite the reader to turn pages.

An investment of time is required through the first quarter of the book. Rubenfeld sets a number of things into motion and takes time to make his New York expansive and deep, the characters rich and vibrant .(Detective Littlemore creeps in from nowhere, it seems, and very nearly succeeds in taking over the book at one point.) But after that initial investment, you need to block out the time to finish the novel because you’re in for a late night. Rubenfeld exercises a siren call, working dexterously with a small cast of suspects, pulling blind after double-blind, with enough twists and turns to satisfy a James Patterson or Jeffrey Deaver fan.

The Interpretation of Murder is truly a magnificent book – sprawling, epic, and jaw-dropping all at the same time. Anyone who can put it down 150 pages from the end has more willpower than I. After Littlemore figured out how Seamus Malley met his death, the plot simply explodes into action, and I had to struggle to keep up with all the twists and turns, which ultimately made perfect sense.

The mystery is satisfying, but so is the commentary on society at the time, the resistance of scientific thinking to psychoanalysis, and even the relationship between Freud and Jung. I can only hope Rubenfeld gets more opportunities to return to this exciting world and bring his readers more adventures of Dr. Younger and Lieutenant Littlemore.

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About Mel Odom

  • Frances

    I absolutely disagree. I found the novel to be messy and disjointed, with far too much of the author to be found on every page. Characters are insufficiently delineated and ill-distinguished from one another, and the author depicts the detective figure as a sort of turn of the century Columbo figure shuffling along but reaching astonishing insights. The scene in the caisson between Littlemore and Younger (whose scenes are either in the first or third person, seemingly without any rationale…) has both of them talking, out of the blue, like some comic double act, wisecracking in an incongruous way which sits ill within the rest of the narrative.

    I grant you that the plot is compelling, although I would argue that the Freud farrago is largely irrelevant, and evidence of the author’s wish to show us how the wide scope of his knowledge. He is of the school which believes that all research undertaken is wasted if it does not find its place on the published page. At about page 200 I wanted to say “Enough! We get it! You’re very clever! In loads of areas. Stop now.”

    There’s nothing about this book which will stay with me, other than a memory of irritation at its unwarranted ostentation and conceit. Another Da Vinci code, then….

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!