In "The Interpretation of Murder," a novel written by Jed Rubenfeld, Sigmund Freud is seen on his 1909 visit to New York City as he admires the skyscrapers and takes satisfied pulls on his cigar. While visiting a museum, he asks where the bathroom is.
In a very Freudian way, Freud quips that he will probably have to make his way through miles of never ending corridors and that a marble palace will be at the end of it.
Mr. Rubenfeld certainly deserves credit for his jocular and smart approach to this very elaborate undertaking. It is no ordinary pop culture sensation that he has created. The book he has written is a psycho-historical, research-fueled Shakespearean thriller that aspires to Da Vinci Code type proportions, which is what makes this such an original and bizarre hybrid.
When a character in the book announces his intentions of planning to study simultaneously detection, psychology, and Elizabethan drama, the reply is that the combination of interests is absurd and that it won't be taken seriously by anyone.
However, those are the interests that Mr. Rubenfeld has. The combination of them is what constitutes the horse pulling the cart that is “The Interpretation of Murder." First came the scholarship. Next came the important psychological characters, including Hamlet, Freud and a woman based on one of the most famous of Freud's patients.
Then there is the breathless murder plot coming next, which incorporates all of the elements. Then the icing on the cake is how psychoanalytical constructs are shamelessly played with. One character talks about how if he could find a girl who was just like Mom that he wouldn't hesitate to marry her. This was coming in a book where the Oedipus complex is kept in mind constantly.
In Mr. Rubenfeld's prologue to the book, he links it to real mysteries that surrounded Freud's only U.S. visit. He was accompanied by what appeared to be a celebrity entourage (which included Sándor Ferenczi, Carl Jung, and Abraham Brill, who was an American pioneering psychoanalyst and English translator for much of Freud's writings) when he went to Worcester, Massachusetts to visit Clark University where he delivered a groundbreaking lecture series. He became embittered by the end of his visit and spoke of Americans later as savages. So what happened to cause him to feel this way?
This question really can't be answered by “The Interpretation of Murder." What it does do is imagine a pre-New York City, pre-Worchester interlude, with New York City in the tight grasp of a Freudian intrigue. This book starts with Freud arriving in the city; then it quickly cuts over to an upscale, candlelit bondage scene. The victim's throat has a white silk tie around it.
Mr. Rubenfeld has to grapple with warring impulses of his characters as well as his own. He has, on the one hand, worked very hard at weaving together real life facts regarding the place and time of the setting of his book. On the other hand, his eagerness to achieve formulaic success results in him cramming his book full of action sequences, and many twists and turns. The lurid does have some historical basis (for a real literary prototype of this see "Ragtime," however it doesn't legitimize the amount of contrivance that is used by Mr. Rubenfeld for pasting it all together.
The book's narrator is a fictitious and fledgling analyst whose name is Dr. Stratham Younger. Although Mr. Rubenfeld uses him to link to that time's high society in New York (he belongs to the Schermerhorn and Fish families), he is still an accessible and inviting character.
Younger is completely awestruck by Freud. He is very eager to do whatever his master bids him do, including psychoanalyzing a shrink-resistant and beautiful victim of hysteria. In reply to one of his many dutiful questions she says, "nothing comes to mind. I believe that is what it means to have amnesia."
When this book is at its best, it makes similar teasing uses of other Freudian tenets. (At one point Younger finally wants to kiss the woman and confides with the reader that he doubted that he was in the throes of a counter-transference.)
This is where the authority that Mr. Rubenfeld has over his material is such a big asset. As an example, he is able to set up deductive fastidiousness that is truly Holmesian in nature very comfortably applies some of his new doctrines. At one point, while attempting to win the approval of Freud, Younger proclaims that she is unable to speak; therefore, something unspeakable must have been done to her.
Both Jung and Younger are engaged by Mr. Rubenfeld in Oedipal maneuvers with Freud. In Jung's case, real ammunition is deployed on both of the conflict's sides. The book draws on published sources such as the two men's writings and letters in order to illustrate the tension that existed between Jung and Freud, even using the father-bashing, a rather embarrassing claim made by June that Freud was actually incontinent.
Of course, Mr. Rubenfeld is running the risk of making these psychiatric giants appear like characters in a Woody Allen humorous essay.
“The Interpretation of Murder” is an eclectic mixture of sinister aristocrats, ravished damsels, architectural wonders (construction of the Manhattan Bridge), Hamlet-Freud connection, hysterical symptoms, and wordplay that is downright criminal. As a result, it creates it own unique brand of excitement. This excitement is both peculiar and palpable. Too much homage is paid in this book to templates of contemporary suspense. However there are still reserves of deep anecdote, wit, data and insight that is ingeniously drawn on by the author.
The contemplation of psychoanalysis is also interesting, starting with its initial impact all the way through its enduring legacy. Freud's observation on America is that they should be banned by a Puritan society. Jung replies that America will ban you, just as soon as it can figure out what you're saying.