THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER
Jed Rubenfeld

 


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Henry Holt, Sep 2006
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

New York City, 1909

Two significant events are occurring simultaneously one New York evening. Sigmund Freud is disembarking from the steamship George Washington. He is here to give a series of lectures at Clark University. And the tortured body of a rich young woman from Chicago is found in an apartment at the Balmoral.

The first heiressís body is immediately followed by a second. Nora Acton is still alive, but she canít speak and has lost her memory. Mayor McClellan assigns stellar young psychoanalyst Stratham Younger to help Miss Acton, and Younger enlists Freud.

Dr. Younger moves in the same social circles as New Yorkís heiresses. The same circles as George Banwell, the owner of the Balmoral, for that matter. They would also be the same social circles as the famous murderer Harry K. Thaw, except that Thaw is sentenced to a mental hospital Ė in very loose captivity. Banwell and Thaw both love hurting young women. Both are obvious suspects.

THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER is a clever psychological labyrinth which never loses sight of humanity. Author Jed Rubenfeld is a debut fiction writer, but the pacing looks like it was done by an experienced pro. It begins in a sedately gruesome tone, combining scholarly intelligence with human sympathy, picks up speed on a ride through various viewpoints at different levels of society, and culminates in two breathless, completely physical climaxes. 

With psychoanalysis such an important element of the story, strong characterization is a must. One gets the feeling that Rubenfeld could have gone on tossing off fascinating characters all day. First is the main viewpoint character, Stratham Younger, building on a foundation of family disgrace and a little disconcerted with his sudden success. The fatherly Sigmund Freud has a scalpel-like insight which he combines with almost limitless generosity. He has brought with him to America Carl Jung, a disciple soon to become a rival. Rubenfeld says the catty conversations (there is no better word for it) between Jung and Freud come directly from their written correspondence.

These psychoanalysts and their friends find themselves opposed by a hidden force, a powerful group of men who feel that Freudís ideas endanger civilization. They have their own sinister solution to offer instead. Equally powerful is George Banwell, wealthy enough to indulge his proclivities without opposition. His wife, Clara, is gorgeous and degraded and Nora Actonís best friend. Above all, Nora -- broken, betrayed, and assigned to Dr. Younger for psychoanalysis in a time when physician ethics are barely a gleam in the eye of the new science. What lies under the surface of this mysterious beauty? 

The police department has not been neglected. Coroner Hugelís attitude is unseemly, but his long-respected expertise points straight at one man. Bumbling first-time detective Jimmy Littlemore casts a broader net and opens up some very interesting cans of worms, which he pursues with endearing dedication. Every minor character is a unique individual perfectly placed to advance the story. One would have no choice but to acknowledge THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER as a tour de force of mystery characterization.  

Jed Rubenfeld, leading Constitutional scholar, has a wide range of interests. In addition to an in-depth study of Freud, he has made of New York City a hundred years ago his own personal battlefield. He has built on centuries of actorsí study of Hamlet. They all fit smoothly and clearly into his debut novel. I wonder how many other, thoroughly considered interests he still has tucked away.

THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER has all the ingredients of a bestseller: an excellent mystery well explained, pulsing characters, and a big marketing campaign. Iím suspicious of big marketing campaigns, but this deserves it.

Sep 2006

 

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