Jed Rubenfeld – The Interpretation of Murder


Jed Rubenfeld’s novel starts with an interesting premise.  Sigmund Freud, who was then making news in Europe and America with his psychoanalysis, arrives in New York, with Carl Jung and others. On the day he arrives, a young actress is tied up, beaten and killed in the penthouse of a posh apartment. The Major asks the coroner to look into the killing. The next day, another girl, Nora Acton, is tied up in similar fashion and beaten. Before the murderer could strangle her, she lets out a huge cry which frightens the killer, who escapes from the house.

This incident has a strange effect on Nora. She loses her ability to speak and she cannot recall what happened.  The protagonist, Dr.Stratham Younger, who receives Freud in New York and is currently taking care of Freud and his companions, meets the Mayor of New York in a ball. The Mayor tells Younger about the strange case of this girl. Yonger suggests that the psychoanalysis technique of Freud will be helpful in solving this case. The Mayor agrees to involve Freud. Freud in turn asks Younger to take up the case himself, suggesting that he(Freud) would provide him guidance from time to time.

In the meanwhile the coroner discovers that the body of the first victim has vanished from the morgue. The coroner involves Detective Littlemore in this case and they start their own investigation to solve the murder. These two threads, Younger trying to cure Nora Acton and the Detective trying to find out who the killer was, run in parallel.

The interesting aspect of the book is that it involves real characters along with fictional ones. Rather than a standard murder setting, we have the likes of Freud, Carl Jung, Mayor McClellan, Abraham Brill and  Sandor Ferenczi, real people, populating the pages of this fictional book.  Similarly the author juxtaposes some real events like building of bridges in New York with fictional events. This is what differentiates this book from other murder mysteries. (The author provides a detailed note in the end to give an idea of how he had moved some real incidents forward in order to keep the interest intact.)

Jed Rubenfeld describes the New York, at the turn of the 20th Century, very well. There are some interesting details given about New York and those who have been to New York would appreciate it well. The description of the wealth of New York, the social power struggle, the parties held are all interestingly woven into the story. Same way, Freud’s role is also intertwined into the murder mystery, with Freud providing direction to Younger in his treatment of Nora Acton and giving him clues on what could have happened. 

It is the same Freud and the discussions held between him, Jung, Brill and Younger which has the potential of boring the readers. There is lot of space devoted to the tiff between Freud and Jung. There is also a lot of space devoted to Younger trying to analyze Hamlet along with Freud. If the reader is not too much into psychoanalysis, these portions can be dreary.  Luckily skipping them will not affect the flow of the story.

Coming to the murder mystery as such, the setup of the murder first and the attempted murder later are done very well. Rubenfeld introduces a lot of colorful characters to keep the reader involved. The investigation done by the Detective is also engagingly told. The denouement is surprising though not very original. The only issue I had was with the fact that there were too many red herrings throughout and with the intention of shift the focus from the real issue and confusing the reader. These red herrings are also resolved satisfactorily in the end but you still cannot get the feeling that you were deliberately pointed in a different direction, sign of an author who is not too sure about his mystery.

Overall the book may split its reader down the middle.  Those who don’t care too much about psychoanalysis or about historical characters may find parts of the book boring and this may impact their reading experience negatively.  Those who don’t mind a bit of psychoanalyses or those who don’t mind skimming those pages, will find this to be an engaging book.

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