The Interpretation of Murder
It’s 1909 and Sigmund Freud, accompanied by protégé Carl Jung, has just arrived in New York City. As Freud descends the ship’s gangplank, his ”fearsome” eyes take in America’s chaos and cacophony and, lighting a cigar, he smiles. Cut to a glitzy 17th-floor Manhattan apartment where a young woman, bound and surrounded by candles, whimpers as an assailant slashes her with a razor, whips her, and then strangles her. ”My name,” she whispers before losing consciousness. ”What is my name?”
With this pulpy, cinematic opener, Jed Rubenfeld launches The Interpretation of Murder, a much-hyped and overstuffed debut that is long on period atmosphere and heady discussions of the Oedipus complex, short on thriller-crafting horse sense. The book’s hero and sometime narrator is Stratham Younger, a fresh-out-of-Harvard physician who agrees to chaperone Freud, his idol, around town. But after a quick trip to Coney Island (Freud appears ”delighted”), their sightseeing is cut short. Another ingenue, this time pretty 17-year-old society girl Nora Acton, has been assaulted. Stripped, hung from a chandelier, whipped, and choked, Nora survives the attack but loses her voice and all memory of the trauma. Younger and Freud are called in to consult. Freud’s sage diagnosis: ”She is plainly suffering from some deep self-reproach.”
Plainly. (Rubenfeld’s jabs at Freudian silliness are one of the book’s pleasures.) With Freud busy, Younger steps in to plumb Nora’s neuroses. His comically rendered attempts to analyze Nora — a tart protofeminist who soon regains her voice — evolve into crime-solving consultations, and the shrink-patient relationship into a romance. In fact, Younger doesn’t need Nora’s dreams to crack the case, just more complete info on Acton family friend George Banwell, a wealthy real estate developer, and his purringly seductive wife, Clara.
This material is more than enough to power a page-turner. But Rubenfeld keeps tossing in new people and plot thickeners. A hardworking detective is investigating the source of mud the killer tracked to a crime scene; the city coroner can’t keep track of corpses; sinister forces are trying to sabotage Freud’s reputation; Jung is up to something fishy; Harry Thaw — the real-life murderer of architect Stanford White — escapes from the loony bin for a cameo. There’s way, way too much going on here for one little novel, and the far-fetched denouement requires pages of windy after-the-fact explanation. The final analysis: Rubenfeld has both smarts and an admirably depraved imagination, but he needs to learn creative restraint.