The Interpretation Of Murder


Review by Dorothy Sinclair

A Novel by Jed Rubenfeld. Picador, 2006. 431 pp.

Fact and fiction marry in this lively, chilling, historical novel that segues between murder mystery and an exploration of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories.

“Interpretation of Murder” opens like a grizzly gothic horror tale. It’s New York City, 1909. On the top floor of an elegant apartment hotel a beautiful woman is being whipped, slashed, bloodied, and strangled by a silk tie. At precisely the same moment, a young New England doctor with the apt name of “Younger” awaits the arrival by ship of his mentor, Dr. Sigmund Freud. Scheduled to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Massachusetts, the famed psychiatrist, accompanied by his disciple Carl Jung, is about to make his one and only visit to the United States. The celebrated pair descends the gangplank, heading straight to their hotel accompanied by an entourage that includes Younger, American Psychiatrist Dr. Norman Brill and the Hungarian Dr. Sandor Ferenczi. As might be expected, rather than hitting their beds, the group is soon involved in provocative discussion.

On the very next day a very young, very stunning college freshman endures a similar attack in her Gramercy Park mansion. Because she comes from an influential family, the mayor consults the famed Viennese psychiatrist, for it seems the pitiful young girl suffers not only from amnesia but a seemingly hysterical inability to speak. Freud immediately assigns this case of psychological repression to his protégé, Stratham Younger. One look at Nora and the thirty-three year old Younger has all he can do keep his distance as a professional analyst. Enter romance and unrequited love.

Before the murder is solved the event is compounded by the torture of several more local women who range from Ladies of the Night to High Society. It falls to Younger, the narrator, to play detective. His exploits take him to the opium dens of Chinatown to the catacombs underneath the barely completed Brooklyn Bridge. The adventures of “007” pale in comparison. When he isn’t physically fighting for his life, Younger is mulling over the solution to Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, all the while lusting after the lovely but neurotic Nora. It takes a little time to figure out that this author/narrator is often putting his readers on, speaking with tongue-in-cheek. That, of course, only serves to heighten the fun.

There’s plenty here for everyone, including revelations of the political graft and corruption that was Tammany Hall. Followers of Freudian and Jungian techniques should be pleased with Rubenfeld’s thorough knowledge and understanding of Freud’s theories of transference and guilt and of the Oedipus complex. The history behind the competitive spirit and jealousy between Jung and Freud is made clear. The pair parted company soon after the aborted New England lecture, thereby forming two separate, influential schools of psychoanalysis. It also becomes clear why, although analytic techniques influenced a large portion of the 20th century, they have largely fallen into disfavor to be supplanted by drugs and more accessible forms of therapy in the 21st. Even more fascinating for this reader was the meticulously researched architectural detail of Manhattan at the turn of the last century. We are vividly transported into a metropolis where taxis are starting to replace horses, where telephones are few and far between, where gaslights flood the pavements, where stunning, intricately detailed high-rises are being built, and where the insane are called “lunatics” and locked up behind bars. This atmospheric backdrop elevates “Interpretation of Murder” to something rather special.

Dorothy Sinclair