Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Interpretation of Murder: Jed Rubenfeld

A woman is found dead in her penthouse apartment in downtown New York; the next day, a beautiful heiress is found almost dead in her parent’s home, not too far away. The two crimes are so similar, that the perpetrator is unquestionably the same. Enter the investigators. And that is where The Interpretation of Murder is different – there are two parallel investigations, one by the police, and the other, by a psychoanalyst, Stratham Younger, with a little bit of assistance from a certain Sigmund Freud.

The story is set in 1909, the year Freud visited the U.S. for the only time in his life to deliver a series of lectures at Clark University. Of course, Interpretation is fictitious, but by virtue of it melding real characters (Freud and Carl Jung being the chief of them) with fictitious ones, it makes for an interesting read.

Interpretation is beautifully written (Jen Rubenfeld, a first-time author, is Professor of Law at Yale University) and brings to life the New York of the early 20th century very evocatively (including the construction of Times Square under the aegis of Mayor George McClellan). Apart from that, it also presents the psychoanalytical investigations of Stratham Younger in language that is non-technical and jargon-free. Considering the structure of the book, there are different narratives, and they are in different voices – it is an interesting approach, and has been handled very well, even though it hasn’t followed the usual style of each chapter focusing one strand.

If there is one area where Interpretation falters, it is in the treatment of the police investigation, consequent to which, the twists and turns towards the end of the book are a bit sudden, unbelievable and a touch too dramatic. Coroner Hugel is not characterized particularly well, and Littlemore, who is introduced as a novice assistant to Coroner Hugel, comes across as a parody for a detective. Initially, it appeared like a conscious characterization, but his subsequent activities belie this personality definition. Littlemore is probably a great opportunity missed in Interpretation.

The insights into and of Freud and Jung are fascinating, though it is set in a fictionalized environment. Freud’s praise for Jung is particularly interesting (He is more important than the rest of us put together), considering how the two actually fell out in real life. Clashes between the two are also brought out, particularly their views on incest.

History has it that Freud did not enjoy his trip to the U.S. at all, and it left some lasting scars in him. While there apparently is no official statement from Freud on this, Jed Rubenfeld tries to give it his own interpretation, putting the following words in Freud’s mouth.

This country of yours: I am suspicious of it. Be careful. It brings out the worst in people – crudeness, ambition, savagery. There is too much money. I see the prudery for which your country is famous, but it is brittle. It will shatter in the whirlwind of gratification being called forth. America, I fear, is a mistake.

Freud may well have actually said it.

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