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The Interpretation of Murder

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In 1909, Sigmund Freud visited America to give a series of lectures and to receive an honorary degree. Before the visit, Freud spoke of America in glowing terms; afterwards, he called Americans “savages” and had nothing further to say. Because he so rarely discussed the trip, no one quite knows what precipitated his change of heart about the American psyche. Novelists, of course, love to speculate. So Jed Rubenfeld has written The Interpretation of Murder, a fictional incursion into Sigmund Freud’s American experiences.

The Interpretation of Murder opens when “a distinguished, immaculately groomed, gray-haired, and gray-bearded gentleman” disembarks in New York City. Accompanied by Sandor Ferenczi of Budapest and Carl Jung of Zurich, Freud is greeted by two American psychoanalysts, Abraham Brill and Stratham Younger. Much of the subsequent action is narrated by an imagined Dr. Younger, as he, Freud, and the others soon become embroiled in a series of unsavory high society murders of a distinctly sexual nature. How the physicians help solve the crime propels the action of this highly readable mystery.

And now I must make a disclaimer: I personally apprehend Freud and Jung with a distinctly jaundiced eye. Part of me, in fact, is inclined to review The Interpretation of Murder as a spoof of psychoanalytic theory. As I read, I found it hard to take seriously the Oedipal innuendos, the Shakespearean riffs on “to be or not to be,” the romantic transferences between doctor and patient, the countless medical exchanges about treatment and analysis. Yet I think Rubenfeld is playing fair with his conferees, and I believe he has provided readers with an honest rendition of how psychoanalysis might be useful when applied to the characters found in this  novel.

What is particularly intriguing about The Interpretation of Murder is the layering of interpretations. No single version is correct. Not only does the subject of Dr. Younger’s analysis change her story with every telling, but the various conversant physicians revise their own views, their own interpretations, constantly. I always admire mysteries with multiple possibilities, and this particular mystery is both fictionally and intellectually complex. Not every reader will appreciate the neuroses and the psychoses, but many will regard Rubenfeld’s plotting and the tangential medical exchanges with great admiration.

Another element of the novel to admire is its sense of place. Rubenfeld has carefully researched early twentieth-century New York City, from its highest social echelons to its more unsavory street corners and alleys. Construction of the Manhattan Bridge plays an intriguing role in the story, as does the Chinese quarter, innuendos of prejudice against Jews, and the actual news accounts of Freud’s reception in America. Rubenfeld sticks to the facts whenever he can, which makes The Interpretation of Murder seem all the more plausible.

It ends, however, with Sigmund Freud on his way back to Europe. “This country of yours,” he says to young Stratham Younger, “I am suspicious of it. Be careful. It brings out the worst in people—crudeness, ambition, savagery. There is too much money. I see the prudery for which your country is famous, but it is brittle. It will shatter in the whirlwind of gratification being called forth. America, I fear, is a mistake. A gigantic mistake, to be sure, but still a mistake.” Thus Rubenfeld pronounces Freud’s American interpretation, and thus Rubenfeld concludes his own interpretation of what happened to Freud while on these shores. – Ann Ronald

Also available by Jed Rubenfeld: The Triple Package (with Amy Chua); The Death Instinct; Freedom and Time; Revolution, The Structure of American Constitutional Law.

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