The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

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The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Deservedly shortlisted for the Richard and Judy prize in 2007 this book weaves an intriguing story around the visit of Sigmund Freud in 1909. It's fiction but based on a factual background with a vivid picture of New York and with a fascinating insight into the early days of psychoanalysis. It's highly recommended by Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 978-0755331420

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Sigmund Freud went to New York in 1909. Outwardly the visit appeared to be a success but Freud himself always spoke of it as though some misfortune had befallen him whilst he was there and even went as far as to blame the visit for illnesses from which he'd suffered before the trip. It's something which has always bemused his biographers. Jed Rubenfeld has used this basic set of ideas to construct a wonderfully atmospheric story in which fact and fiction blend seamlessly together.

A young woman is found viciously beaten and strangled in an exclusive New York apartment and shortly afterwards a society beauty narrowly escapes the same fate, but is left with no memory of what happened to her and initially she's unable to talk. There's no physical reason why young Nora Acton can't speak and the help of a psychoanalyst is sought despite the fact that the science is only in its infancy. Dr Stratham Younger is Freud's most committed American disciple and he's asked to help her as Freud himself won't be available throughout the period when she'll need treatment. As Younger tells of his attempts to fathom what lies behind the savage attacks and of his feelings for the young woman he's treating we watch the police investigation in the hands of Detective Jimmy Littlemore. The narrative moves easily back and forth between the first and third person and is well paced.

The book is backed by meticulous research, helped by the polymath author, who studied philosophy, acting and law. He's now a Professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law at Yale and has several academic books to his credit. The background of the book is painted in superbly. It's New York in that unstoppable period in the early part of the twentieth century when the growth of capitalism is reflected in the skyline and deep down below the East River as we watch the final stages of the building of the Manhattan Bridge. Despite this being the land of the free there's a rigid class system, the division between rich and poor grows and anti-Semitism is rife. It's the time too of graft and corruption and when honesty amongst public servants is the exception rather than the rule.

On the face of it there are some difficult concepts in this book. The title itself is a play on Freud's famous book The Interpretation of Dreams and some of the thinking behind that work is brought out in the novel in a way that makes the ideas accessible. There's also a discussion on 'what women want' which left me amused and, er, thoughtful. I was less impressed by the strand running through the book about Hamlet and his 'To be, or not to be... ' soliloquy, which is clever and though-provoking but which I felt was a little overdone, possibly because Hamlet annoys the hell out of me.

What struck me most about this book was the way that the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung was woven into the storyline. The author says that 90% of the exchanges between Jung and Freud are taken from published sources but the time scale has been compressed. The breakdown of their relationship occurred over a period of about three years rather than the weeks which it would appear to have taken in the book, but the essence of the dispute between them and the way that Freud's thinking offended various sections of American society is an essential part of the story.

I hope I'm not making the book sound dull, because it's far from that. Rubenfeld is a consummate story teller and he builds the dramatic tension in a way which belies the fact that this is a debut novel. There's one instance of animal cruelty which left me shocked to the core and a point when detective and psychoanalyst are in the underground workings of the bridge and I became so tense that I had to put the book down and walk away as it seemed a little too real.

The male characters in the book are easy to empathise with. I really wanted Stratham Younger to unravel the mystery and I willed Detective Littlemore to succeed. George Banwell, the (fictional) builder of the Manhattan Bridge inspired loathing and mistrust in equal measures whilst the (real) Harry Thaw, occasional resident of the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane was appropriately sinister. I was less convinced by the women. Nora Acton is based on Dora (otherwise Ida Bauer) who is described in Freud's most controversial case history. The ending of the book might explain why it was that I never really felt that I'd come to grips with Nora, but the thought was in my mind throughout the book. Clara Banwell was a woman of extremes but not much middle ground. There's a lot of story in the book though and it's churlish to make much of relatively minor points. It's a book to read and enjoy.

If you enjoy this book you will certainly enjoy Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind.

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