The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld

New York in 1909, and Sigmund Freud is making his only visit to America. Freud and his retinue arrive shortly before a bizarre murder takes place, which is followed by another murder attempt, seemingly by the same person. The second victim loses her power of speech, and so one of Freud's acolytes, Stratham Young, takes her on as a patient, and with the help of Freud's psychoanalytic insight, becomes involved in the investigation to uncover the villain.

Quite a promising setup for a story, and it wasn't that bad to read, but unfortunately I don't think it worked, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the structure of the book was awkward: most of the sections involving Young were written by him in the first person, but a greater portion of the book was written in the third person, and there was no obvious reason for this - it was just distracting.

Secondly, the book seemed not to be able to decide whether it was a murder mystery or an analysis of the problems Freud encountered with the medical establishment in America, and his falling out with Jung (who was accompanying Freud on this trip). The narrative switched between these two plot strands, but they seemed mutually exclusive (apart from a couple of rather unconvincing incidents).

Thirdly, the book painted a very uncritical picture of Freud's theories: when he offered an opinion to Young about his patient, or about the motivations of any other character, that opinion was invariably proved correct, no matter how implausible it was, or how little evidence it was based on. As I was reading, I assumed that there would come a point in the story where it would turn out that Freud's elaborate explanations would be undermind by some mundane explanation, but that never happened. I wonder if perhaps the author was being ironic in his implicit praise of the power of psyhoanalysis, but if he was then it was too subtle for me.

And finally, the solution to the puzzle turned out to be pretty convoluted, and required about 15 pages at the end where Young, detective, and villain explained whodiddit and why. I wouldn't have minded the novel's other faults so much if it had been a good read, but - apart from one scene when Young and a detective are almost drowned as they search for evidence in a caisson - it wasn't really that gripping.

The author's postscript makes it a bit easier to understand some of the above faults: he is at pains to point out how much care he's taken to get historical detail correct, e.g. only attributing words to Freud that can be verified through his own writings, using one of Freud's case studies as the basis for the crime, and describing the buildings and people of Manhattan based on contemporary record. Commendable though this might sound, it does seem like what he's ended up with is a load of individual facts and episodes, selected and glued together into a single narrative which doesn't really flow very well. I'm really surprised that the book has had such rave reviews (Guardian says it's "fiendishly clever").

The book reminded me a bit of River of Darkness, and Caleb Carr's "The Alienist".

Completed : 2-Oct-2007

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