The Interpretation of Murder
by Jeb Rubenfeld
The Interpretation of Murder was our book club's reading choice for January. We'd taken a couple of months off for the holidays, and several of us had put this book on our Christmas wish lists! Which made it the perfect book for January.
The set-up of the story is very intriguing indeed. This is a historic murder mystery based on true events. Sigmund Freud visited the United States only once and never returned. He had apparently taken quite a dislike to America while he was here, and when he returned to Europe he referred to Americans as "savages." In The Interpretation of Murder, the author creates a story to explain Freud's perceptions.
In a nutshell, it's New York City, c. 1909, and a beautiful out-of-towner has been murdered in an upscale apartment building called the Balmoral (based on a famous NYC building called the Ansonia). The murder coincides with Freud's first trip to America to deliver a lecture at Clark College. Dr. Stratham Younger, a burgeoning Freudian, is called in to psychoanalyze the murderer's second victim, who managed to escape.
It is a very intriguing set-up, and one that piqued all of our interest. But the book is not an unqualified success.
First, the pros. The author has done an excellent job with his research. Many of the details of New York City are very well done, including details about high society at the time (the feud between the Vanderbilts and the Astors). We all enjoyed the details about the mechanical feats of engineering that allowed the Manhattan Bridge to be built. We also liked the details about Gramercy Park (one of us used to live in that neighborhood).
But now the cons. While some of us thought the book moved along at a nice clip, most of us felt it was plodding, with too many things going on. The author is given to lengthy explanations of things like Shakespearean drama and the inner workings of Freudian theory, which lead to a sort of textbook feel. The plot is pretty convoluted, with a bunch of red herrings and subplots that muddy the waters, including one to discredit Freud before he even gets to speak at the university. Several of us had to read the resolution of the mystery several times to "get" it, and two of us gave up on trying to figure it all out.
There are some other disappointments, too. Most of us had been under the impression that Freud himself would be actively investigating the mystery--that's not the case. He's more of an advisor to Dr. Stratham Younger, who isn't very interesting as a narrator. The narration keeps switching back and forth between first person and third, which can work (some of us very much like books with multiple viewpoints) but in this case, it seemed like a mishmash. The portrait of Carl Jung (who accompanied Freud on his trip to the U.S.) seemed really unfair. None of us knew a tremendous amount about Jung, but the portrait of him in the book seems negative in the extreme (though the author says in his afterword that his fictional recreations of Freud and Jung are based on extensive research, which we didn't doubt).
The characters are sort of lifeless, too--no real flesh and blood there, not even the narrator. But the biggest problem we thought was the way the book reads. Freudian psychology has receded quite a bit...it's no longer what's going on in the field of psychology today, which is becoming increasingly focused on the brain and biochemistry. The Interpretation of Murder makes it seem as if Freudian psychology has been the salvation of the field, but we know that it really hasn't been (even though its influence of course cannot be denied). Now we may be wrong about this (none of us are psychologists or trained in that area) but even a casual reading of the popular press tells the common reader that it's all about biopsychology these days, not the Oedipus Complex. So the book feels like much ado about nothing...almost like a historical footnote that is out of touch.
Overall, I can't say that we disliked or hated the book, but many were disappointed in it and felt it did not live up to the hype. We took away from it a sense that the author really does love NYC and did a great job on the research. But as a mystery it leaves a lot to be desired, and in terms of suspense--it's almost nonexistent. Several of us finished it out of a sense of obligation, not because we wanted to. All told, not one of our favorite books, but to be fair, we are just a small group of people and others may love it.