Book Review : The interpretation of murder — By Jeb Rubenfeld

Jed Rubenfeld has made a bold attempt at writing a psychoanalytic thriller, something which few authors have tried to do; and what’s more, he nearly pulled it off. This book is based in 1909 when Sigmund Freud, the neurologist famous for his theories on psychoanalysis, visited America for the first – and only – time. This is the first fictional book that I have read where an actual living character plays such a major role. Though of course, if the book was going to be based on psychoanalysis it would have been a criminal offense not to include Freud in it. It has been written for the most part as a first person account of Dr. Stratham Younger, a fictional character created by the author.

The story starts with the day Freud arrives in New York, America along with two of his followers Carl Jung and Sandor Fereczi to lecture in the Clark University. The same night, a young girl of 17 is murdered in her plush apartment in the same city. The murder is even more gruesome because the girl is tied to the ceiling and whipped mercilessly. The very next day a similar attack takes place on Nora Acton, another 17 year old in her own house. She manages to scream out before the murderer could finish his work, and so the murderer has to flee.

When the police attempt to interrogate the girl, it turns out that she has lost her voice and cannot remember anything that took place the previous day. That is when the Mayor of New York on learning that Sigmund Freud is in the city invites him to have a look at the girl. After examining the girl, Freud tells Younger to take over the case and helps him solve it. While Younger runs psychoanalytic treatment on Nora, Detective Littlemore attempts to trace down the murderer based on the clues that he finds on the body of the murdered girl before it mysteriously disappears. As expected, there is a romantic angle introduced with Stratham Younger and Nora Acton as the protagonists.

The story, being set in the early 1900’s New York, describes the architectural and the industrial revolution taking place at that time quite vividly. Also, the author has described the social strata and the general mindset of the people during that time quite succinctly. This was very important because it explains why the parents of the victim are so eager to cover the assault on her.

The book touches with a lot of psychoanalytical theories prevalent during that time. But, it mainly deals with the Oedipus complex theory which was propounded by Freud. This theory deals with the feeling and desires of any person to possess the parent of opposite sex and eliminate the parent of the same sex. The main plot – and several sub plots – deals with this same theory.

Most of the fictional characters described in this book are well sketched. However, their behavior is not quite consistent throughout the book, which makes you wonder whether the author changed the climax at the last moment. The behavior of other characters ofcourse is based on their real life counterparts. While Freud, Jung, Ferenczi and a few others existed in real life too, a few characters have been based on other real life characters. Quite a few events described in the book did take place in real life too; like the parting of ways between Freud and Jung. However, while in reality this event took place a few years after 1909, in the book this event has been shown as having occurred during their visit to America. There are a few other events which have similarly been postponed or preponed in order to accommodate them in the book. However, since these are related to the main plot of the book, I will not mention them here.

The biggest fault with the book is that the flow of the book is all confused. One moment you will have Younger having psychoanalytical sessions with Nora Acton, the other moment you will have Littlemore struggling on to find the murderer. The scenes tend to change with each paragraph, which is not something that you really want. Most readers would prefer a particular scene to go on for atleast 3-5 paragraphs. It’s almost as if Jed Rubenfeld is trying to create too much of mystery. And there he lets the reader down. Basically such books are supposed to be read while travelling and other hectic activities. However, the haphazard structuring of the book means that you can get lost easily. In fact, I would strongly recommend that you read this book only if you have time on your hand. If you plan to read this book haltingly, with a break of say a 4-5 days between two readings then it may be hard to keep up with the plot. Another fault, as I mentioned earlier, is that the characters are not consistent throughout the book. What I mean is that, during any character’s interaction with any other character, there is no hint given that he/she may turn out to be different. This is an error most mystery writers try to avoid since the surest way to lose readers is by creating a mystery so unfathomable that the reader cannot guess the solution by himself at all.

All in all, I would say the ‘The Interpretation of Murder’ could have been a much better book than it eventually turned out to be. Should you read it? Well, as I said, read it only if you can keep up with the confusing storyline, or else just give it a skip.
—– Reviewed By Gaurav Vartak


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