[Review] The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

Title: The Interpretation of Murder: A Novel
Author: Jed Rubenfeld
Page: 565 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller
Subject: Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939), Carl Jung (1875 -1961), Psychoanalysis, Manhattan (New York), Murder Investigation
First Published: 2006

Manhattan, 1909: On the morning after Sigmund Freud arrives in New York on his first – and only – visit to the United States, a stunning debutante is found bound and strangled in her penthouse apartment, high above Broadway. The following night, another beautiful heiress, Nora Acton, is discovered tied to a chandelier in her parents’ home, viciously wounded and unable to speak or recall her ordeal. Soon Freud and his American disciple, Stratham Younger, are enlisted to help Miss Action recover her memory, and to piece together the killer’s identity. It is a riddle that will test their skills to the limit, and lead them on  a thrilling journey – into the darkest places of the city, and of the human mind.

 - Synopsis from book cover

I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into when I first embarked on reading this book. I have to admit that I had some reservations. For one, having briefly studied psychology in college (I was actually a course away from getting a minor in social psychology!), Freud’s psychoanalysis theory wasn’t really unfamiliar to me. I remembered about the id, ego and superego and I thought Freud’s “sexual and Oedipus complex” theory was absurd and preposterous. And I was quite skeptical about books using actual historical figures and putting them into fiction. How do you portray the person’s characteristics and personalities in a fictitious situation?

Nevertheless, I put my reservations aside. Boy didn’t I know what I was getting myself into! The Interpretation of Murder  took me on a surprisingly delightful and thrilling roller coaster ride of a literary murder/mystery novel set during the the turn-of-century New York. It is a rare find that every element in the novel works for me. The setting, the plot, the characters, the writing and the pace of the story.

The setting. I don’t really read novels set in the early 1900s that often, I’ve always preferred the ones set during wartime, particularly WWII. But I’m positive that things will change after reading this novel. With this book, I get insights of the high society New York during the turn of the century and not to mention the advent of new technologies (bridges, tall buildings, automobiles) and the importance of education and knowledge.

The plot. A note at the beginning of the book:

In 1909, Sigmund Freud, accompanied by his then disciple Carl Jung, made his one and only visit to the United States, to deliver a series of lectures on psychoanalysis at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. The honorary doctoral degree that Clark awarded him was the first public recognition Freud had ever received for his work. Despite the great success of this visit, Freud always spoke, in later years, as if some trauma had befallen him in the United States. He called Americans ‘savages’ and blamed his sojourn there for physical ailments that afflicted him well before 1909. Freud’s biographers have long puzzled over this mystery; speculating whether some unknown event in America could have led to his otherwise inexplicable reaction.

In the Author’s Note section, Rubenfeld explained his idea for the book: taking the real-life mystery surrounding Freud’s visit to America as noted above and creating a fictional psychoanalytic and murder case to explain the mystery. He then created a fictitious character named Dr. Stratham Younger, Freud’s American counterpart and fellow believer of his psychoanalysis theories to lead the investigation.

My initial reservations was immediately compromised. Although I still don’t buy Freud’s “sexual and Oedipus complex” theory, I can accept the virtue of the psychoanalysis explanation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet “To be or not to be” which evidently was author’s own. Sigmund Freud and Shakespeare are two subjects close to the author as he studied them as an undergraduate and at Julliard, and as per explained by the author at the end of the book, though The Interpretation of Murder is a work of fiction, but much is based on actual fact.

The characters. Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and a few others mentioned in the book are actual historical figures; the character of Miss Nora Acton is based on Freud’s actual case study; and some are totally fictitious, like Dr. Stratham Younger (oh how I love the sound of his name!) and the detective Jimmy Littlemore. Some scenes and conversations between Freud and Jung were taken from actual occurrences based on their own letters, essays and statements drawn from published sources.

My favorite character from the book is the city’s Coroner Hugel, with his rude and mocking comments, moody and grumpy character; and Detective Littlemore, with his determination to solve the case despite Hugel’s criticisms. And it is easy to get “acquainted” with Dr. Younger as he is the narrator for the major part of the story.

The writing is easy to read. Even the scholarly talk about Freud’s psychoanalysis theory, the engineering of The Manhattan Bridge and the interpretation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy are easy and a delight to read.

The pace. With its whopping 500+ pages I thought it’s going to be a slow read for me but the reverse was true. If I had the whole day not having to do anything else but read, I would have finished it in a day, hands down. It was such a page-turner that I can’t seem to put it down.

I read somewhere that The Interpretation of Murder is going to be made into a movie (release date still TBA) and I can’t wait!


Jenny said…
Awesome review!! I really can't wait to read this now! It's sitting here on my TBR. I didn't know it was going to be a movie!
I almost bought this one tonight! I wish I would have now! Great review! (on my way to do more damage to be bank account)....
marmalade said…
hey, perhaps, you may want to start reading malay fictions too. good ones, of course. we do have the national laureates in english, you know :)
marmalade: I know... I've already added "Interlok" in my wishlist =)
Nina B. said…
This sounds like it's really exciting! Adding this on my wishlist now!

Our TBRs are really growing every time we visit each other's blogs, huh? :D

Brush Up On Your Reading