THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER by Jed Rubenfeld

21 02 2012

I have heard this referred to as “the thinking man’s historical novel”. Perhaps that should be the thinking woman’s historical novel. Believe me, any woman will sympathise with Nora, and many will identify with Clara. I know I did.

It is 1909, and Sigmund Freud arrives in New York aboard the George Washington in the company of Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi. Freud is to spend two weeks in the United States, the first week in New York, staying at the Hotel Manhattan, and the second week as the guest of Clark University, where he is to deliver his already famous – not to say notorious – series of lectures.

All historical fact, and everything painstakingly researched. Not just the details of life in New York City at that point in time, but Freud’s case-histories and the attitudes of his disciples and admirers and his rather more numerous and often fanatical detractors.

He is met off the ship by Abraham Brill, translator of his first book to appear in English, and by Stratham Younger, a physician/psychiatrist representing Clark University, who is our handsome young narrator.

Within that small group there are already tensions. Jung, Freud’s anointed successor, is pulling away from Freud – Freud sees this as a classic development of the father-son relationship – while Dr Younger himself is far from convinced about the Oedipus Complex, and there are constant musings on his part about Freud’s interpretation of Hamlet as jealous of his uncle: that unconsciously he would have liked to murder his father and bed his mother himself. Younger has a different, and interesting, interpretation of “to be or not to be” as to take no action or to take action, “to be” meaning simply to exist without doing anything.

All very relevant, because a young woman is tortured and murdered, and this is quickly followed by another one, Nora, being assaulted in an identical manner. Nora, who is hardly more than a girl, survives (her attacker was apparently disturbed) but she is severely traumatised. She cannot remember what happened and she has lost the power of speech.

Freud is called in to treat her for amnesia and aphasia, but cannot undertake the case as he will not be staying in New York. He asks Younger to undertake it on his behalf.

It transpires that Nora’s “uncle”, a friend of her father’s and one of the richest men in the city, may have been the perpetrator. This man, Branwell, has been pursuing Nora since she was fourteen (she is eighteen now) and she has continually repulsed him. Another question that arises is, Did Nora’s father exchange his daughter for Branwell’s beautiful wife, Clara? Was Nora perhaps jealous of the stunningly beautiful Clara (as Freud would predict)? And is the growing obsession with each other of Nora and Younger simply an example of what Freud called “transference”, or are they really falling in love?

Another quite different and contrasting character is the New York Detective Jimmy Littlemore. He seems to have been brought in for light relief but turns out to be the hero, a simple and engaging man who to some extent takes over the story from Dr Younger. He could easily be developed into a series – though we would miss Freud! Littlemore’s girlfriend works briefly in a sweatshop and we get a glimpse of what life was (and is) like in these places – and understand better such comments as Brill’s answer to the rhetorical question “What did all those young men die for at Gettysburg?” (A fairly recent event.) Brill says, “To ensure that all slavery would be wage slavery.” Elsewhere in the book ( I cannot find it now) someone remarks that the New York establishment had been against the abolition of slavery – until they realised that it was much cheaper to employ someone on starvation wages than to buy him and keep him fed and clothed and housed.

If you like to be made to think while being entertained, this is the book for you. I shall remember it for a long time as an extremely successful mixture of mystery, thriller, love story, and genuine historical novel.


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