Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Interpretation of Murder.
It is historical fact that in 1909 Sigmund Freud paid his only visit to the U.S., after which he labeled Americans as “savages.” In Jed Rubenfeld’s debut novel, The Interpretation of Murder, Freud’s arrival in New York coincides with a rash of attacks against beautiful young socialites. Dr. Stratham Younger, a Freud devotee, is asked to help the second victim, Nora Acton, regain her memory. He turns to his teacher for help in treating his reluctant patient and, in turn, must aid his mentor by allaying the cloud of suspicion hovering around Freud.
The Interpretation of Murder is based around the real-life mystery surrounding Freud's visit to America in 1909. In an interview with BookReporter.com, Rubenfeld says he was inspired to use, as the jumping-off point for his novel, a basic question which has puzzled Freud's biographers for a long time: “Could something have happened to Freud during his week in Manhattan, something we still don't know about, some event that could account for his severe antipathy to America?” In his detailed author’s note, Rubenfeld carefully delineates the line between his fiction and historical fact.
Rubenfeld portrays a New York City well known to readers of Edith Wharton and Henry James’ work. Dr. Stratham Younger and many of the other characters inhabit the world of the beau monde, the Vanderbilts and the Astors. These glittering figures wander carelessly through the events portrayed with the same cold disdain portrayed so cleverly in The House of Mirth. By invoking the specter of Wharton and James’ writing styles, Rubenfeld effortlessly exposes the hollowness filling the houses and settings his killer treads.
This world of excess is in sharp contrast with corruption found within the New York police department and government. In these early days of investigation, crime scene investigation is almost non-existent and the wealthy can easily circumvent procedure. What is particularly fascinating in The Interpretation of Murder is the commentary Rubenfeld provides on American society in the early 1900s. The resistance to Freud’s theories is expounded upon at great length and the developing rift between Freud and Jung gradually exposed.
Many of the theories expressed are laughable viewed from a century later; others however, are extremely repugnant. Many Americans felt that Freud was promoting sexual license and believed his theories would lead to all sorts of social ills. At a dinner party attended by Freud, one of the guests suggested that, as a man of science, Freud should be concerned with the dangers of sexual emancipation, such as the problems of overpopulation. His proposal is that every immigrant without means be sterilized so that American society “are not required to bear the charge of their unfit offspring, who end up as beggars and thieves” - although the guest is willing to “make an exception, of course, for those who can pass an intelligence test.”
Early in The Interpretation of Murder, Dr. Younger explains one of his most exciting theories - man’s moments of revolutionary genius have all happened at the turn of a century, specifically in the first decade of a century. Rubenfeld has brought this dynamic period vividly to life and proposed a fascinating solution to the mystery of Freud’s visit to and the rise of psychoanalysis in America.