The Interpretation of Murder reviewed

October 7, 2007

interpretation of murder

I’m a guest on Newstalk’s Life with Orla Barry at 11.30am on Wednesday morning next (10th October) reviewing The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. Described as a ‘dazzling literary thriller’ by the Richard and Judy Book Club and

inspired by Sigmund Freud’s 1909 visit to America, accompanied by protégé and rival Carl Jung. When a wealthy young debutante is discovered bound, whipped and strangled in a luxurious apartment overlooking the city, and another society beauty narrowly escapes the same fate, the mayor of New York calls upon Freud to use his revolutionary new ideas to help the surviving victim recover her memory of the attack, and solve the crime. But nothing about the attacks – or about the surviving victim, Nora – is quite as it seems. And there are those in very high places determined to stop the truth coming out, and Freud’s startling theories taking root on American soil.

Psychoanalysis rarely takes things at face value so I’m sure Freud would have appreciated the many promotional pieces for the book – award winning works of fiction in their own right. Freud is not a central character, he has nothing to do with solving a murder (the ‘killer’ confesses); and the interchanges between him, Jung, Firenze and other are interesting diversions but hardly central to the plot of a murder mystery.
As I mentioned here the book has a brilliant series of opening paragraphs but unfortunately it’s all rather disappointing from then on. The strength of the book is its attention to detail. The descriptions of turn of the century New York are very evocative and lovingly written. The weakness of the book is also its attention to detail it’s generally over researched, over written, too clever for its own good and could use losing at least 100 pages. There are three stories going on. The murder (or is it?); the solving of the case and an attempt to draw together the areas of expertise of the author – psychoanalysis and Shakespeare.
The novel attempts to gather many of Freud’s core ideas and use them as a way of developing and driving the plot. I didn’t think it worked. The dinner party scene where Freud gets to have his dilemma about what women really want answered is but one nod to the psychoanalytically inclined reader but again, hardly important in the greater scheme of things. The book is far too contrived for me and I didn’t know whether this was a covert lecture on psychoanalysis or a poor murder mystery in need of a credibility makeover. I read the book in three sittings and with over 40 characters I found it hard to keep up with who was talking about what (anyone who reads this a chapter at a time and keeps up with the plot gets my admiration that’s for sure) and by the end of it all I didn’t really care – I had lost sympathy for the characters and connection with the plot.
Yes, psychoanalysis gets a look in as an ‘interpretation’ of something (the ‘victim’ Nora is in fact based on Freud’s famous case of Dora); Hamlet’s procrastination is given a psychoanalytic makeover and Freud’s Oedipus complex is revised so, we have an interpretation of two philosophical and psychological murders. Confused yet? Well join the club – I found the latter two interpretations interesting (and credible) but can’t say more because it would ruin one of the more curious moments in the novel.
It’s marginally better written than the DaVinci Code but in the same territory in its mixing of fact and fiction and the text reads more like a film script (I’m sure it’s already in development) but it’s too academic – The author includes an epilogue outlining the research that went to making sure so much of the book is accurate. I’ve seen several interviews where he talks about the amount of ‘fact checking’ that went into it. It’s a novel isn’t it? Would it matter if he took liberties with the ‘truth’? I hardly think so. I have an interest in psychoanalysis so that’s what kept me reading – I wonder how it reads to someone with no interest or knowledge of the area? One blogger I know said this about it:

That scene under the river made a total farce of the book, which up till then had an interesting take on New York society, Freudian/Jungian theory, sadomasochism, sexual innocence and perversion. After the river scene we were expected to believe the most outrageous stuff that not even a panel of big brother residents could swallow without incredulity.

But Freud gets the last laugh because the author is the

Robert R. Slaughter Professor of Law at Yale Law School

But then again, that’s what you get when you search for meaning instead of being happy with what’s sitting in front of you!
Tune in and add your own views to the conversation, I’ll post the link to the podcast as soon as it’s on the Newstalk website.
Update: I see a fictional meeting between Henry James and Sigmund Freud forms the basis for another book Lions at Lamb House by Edwin M. Yoder Jr. I wonder why Mr Freud is making guest appearances? What does that tell us about the state of psychoanalysis these days?