Monday, February 12, 2007

Debut a Debut: The Interpretation of Murder

I've actually had the first book I'm featuring for Debut a Debut on Mt. TBR for quite a while. It seems that the contest was just what I need to propel the book to the top of my list.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

In 1909, after being invited to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Sigmund Freud made his first and only visit to the United States accompanied by then-disciple Carl Jung as well as the less well-known psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi. The visit prompted Freud to call America "a gigantic mistake" and all Americans "savages." He also blamed the trip for many physical ailments some of which predated the visit; no one is exactly sure why. The exploration of that question is the premise of law professor and first-time novelist Jed Rubenfeld's historical thriller The Interpretation of Murder.

In Rubenfeld's version of events, Freud's animosity toward America is a result of what happened while he was staying in New York City before his lecture series. During that week, Freud and his followers become involved in a strange murder investigation and are blackmailed by people trying to impede the introduction of psychoanalysis to the country.

When society girl Nora Acton, having survived a brutal attack strikingly similar to a recent murder, is suffering from crypto-amnesia and hysterical muteness, it seems that psychoanalysis may help catch a serial killer. Due to his prior committments, Freud delegates the analysis/treatment to protagonist and narrator Stratham Younger (a fictional character described as "America's most committed Freudian analyst") and so the tale begins to unfold.

Within the novel, historical personages -- including Abraham Brill (Freud's translator and one of America's first proponents of psychoanalysis), G. Stanley Hall (president of Clark University and founder of the American Psychological Association), and New York's mayor George McClellan -- mingle with fictional characters like Stratham Younger, Nora Acton (loosely based on Freud's real-life patient "Dora"), coroner Charles Hugel, and Detective James Littlemore, making for a very realistic tale. The Interpretation of Murder is steeped in period detail, providing a painfully accurate portrait of early 20th Century New York City (Rubenfeld includes an author's note in which he explains exactly where the novel deviates from historical fact).

While I enjoyed "seeing" Freud and Jung "in the flesh" so to speak, I found the novel to be less thrilling than expected. The story seems to get a bit lost in the details. For example, while including so many specifics about Jung and Freud, their individual neuroses, and their relationship did enhance their stock as fictional characters, it detracted (and distracted) from the story itself. In any case, this is an easy mistake for a first-time novelist to make and The Interpretation of Murder is nothing if not an ambitious novel. While it may not be perfect, it still makes for a fascinating read.

On a side note:
Strangely enough, one of my favorite things about the book is the cover design. That's not to say that the novel itself isn't good, it's just that the cover is amazing, masterfully done by Raquel Jaramillo. The photo that you see through the window in the black dustjacket wraps around the book itself and evokes the scene of the book's first murder. Just wonderful...

Another side note:
The Freud Museum in Vienna has a wonderful group photo taken at Clark in 1909. You can see it here.


  1. Very nice review, Karen! Thank you for participating. :)

  2. That sounds like a very interesting and complex first novel! I haven't really dived into any murder stories at all, but this one sounds worth reading.

  3. Hello Karen!,

    Can I say how excited I am that you mentioned being attracted to the cover? I know we all judge books by their covers. We just do. I don't care that we're not supposed to; that's just all there is to it. We freakin' do.

    A hideous cover can ruin a good book's sales, and an attractive one can save a mediocre book.

    Thanks for reviewing a debut novelist.


  4. Wonderful review! I enjoyed this book when I read it, but I have to agree with your assessment that it was an ambitious book that didn't quite hit the mark.

    Great review!