15 Sep 2006
For a month in 1909, Sigmund Freud paid his only visit to the United States, the guest of Clark University in Massachusetts. But first, he spent a week in New York City, accompanied by his friends, including the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. He did the usual touristy things. He visited Coney Island and swam in the saltwater swimming pool. He saw Chinatown and the Jewish Ghetto. He saw the Cyprian antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum and walked the grounds of Columbia University. Then, he moved on to Clark, where he give five lectures on psychoanalysis. After a visit to Niagara Falls, he sailed home.
Out of this thin material, Jed Rubenfeld wove a psychological thriller that perhaps tries to be a little too respectful of history.
Set during the week Freud spent in New York City, “The Interpretation of Murder” opens with a scene in which an heiress is being whipped, cut and slowly strangled with a silk tie in a sumptuous apartment. A second attack the next day on another heiress, Nora Acton, leaves her traumatized into silence. Calling Dr. Freud, who refers the case to Stratham Younger, a blue-blood related to the old New York families and a recent Harvard psychology graduate.
Younger gets Nora to speak, and suspicion quickly falls on a family friend, George Banwell. He’s the complete villain, and in the style of the melodrama of the times, the reader learns to hiss at his every appearance. He’s rich, he has a wife he abuses, and he’s been in love with Nora since she was a girl and, she says, has tried to seduce her on two occasions. Her parents, however, do not believe her, and after another attack on her, Younger is given reason to doubt her word as well. Is Banwell really the attacker, or is she not right in the mind due to some family trauma?
While Younger is diving the depths of Nora’s psyche, the city’s coroner and a newly minted detective is following the clues in the torture-murder, but treading carefully because the bluebloods don’t like it bandied about that their daughters are being ravished.
As if that weren’t enough, cracks are appearing in the relationship between Freud and Jung, and there is a conspiracy to destroy the infant science by slandering Freud and preventing his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” from being published.
There is a lot of story to work through, and while the book has some fine scenes, there’s less here than meets the eye. Freud and Jung seem to be accurately rendered. Rubenfeld draws much of their talk from their record, moved and recast to fit the plot. He even includes one notable scene from later in their lives in which Jung proclaims he kinetically created a boom while talking with Freud, and then repeated it.
Part of the fun of historical mysteries starring the famous and notorious can be from watching the famous figure running into the tropes of the mystery and thriller genre. How would Freud have read a crime scene? How would the urbane Jewish Viennese fare in egalitarian New York? But Rubenfeld keeps Freud historically pure. Apart from discussing the case with Younger and offering advice, his role consist of playing Freud, much like the anamatronic Lincoln performs at Disneyland.
Freud is given so little to work with that, when he declares at the end that America was “a gigantic mistake,” you wonder “where the hell did he get that idea?” (According to The People’s Almanac, Freud suffered on the trip from longtime prostate problems, American cooking gave him intestinal disorders, and he “disliked not being understood when he spoke in German, resented the lack of Old World manners [and] disapproved of the inhibitions and prudery he perceived in most Americans.”
The story is not helped by its clunky narration, nor that Younger is earnest, humorless and entirely too comfortable an aristocrat. Even when trapped in a caisson below the East River, with water pouring in, he behaves with the distant concern of a therapist whose 50 minutes are nearly up.
“Interpretation” is being pushed by Holt as the book to read this season, but in the end, we’d have to call it a Freudian slip.
Genre: 10 Not really much thrilling about it. The solution is complicated and goes on for enough pages to try the reader’s patience.
Character: 13 Some vivid characterizations. Detective Jimmy Littlemore is a hoot, all bounce and optimism. Freud and Jung breathe, but seem distant. Rubenfeld seemed to lack the ruthlessness a writer needs to take historical characters and endow them with sweat and shit (although Freud does piss himself at one point).
Setting: 11 Accurate depictions of NYC, from a high society ball to building sites and slums.
Theme: 14 The story is set up to reflect Freud’s theories about hysteria and sexual trauma.
Style: 7 Bland. Stratham Younger is a blah protagonist, stiff as a politician and about as appealing. The narration’s plain style stumbles over itself at times.
Bonus: 3 For the fellatio and the intimations of lesbianism.
Links to “The Interpretation of Murder”