Rubenfeld’s crime tale is heady stuff

Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder is perhaps the most intriguing novel I have ever read – certainly the most Byzantine crime fiction you’ll come across.

It takes place in 1909 New York City, a curious time of change from the old Victorian days to high-rise development, population explosion and fading entitlement of the aristocracy. It was the year that Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung came to New York from Vienna to establish Freud’s heretical theories of what he coined psychoanalysis.

Freud and Jung were met at the quayside by Drs. Abraham Brill and Stratham Younger, acolytes of Freud’s newly minted psychoanalysis. The science revealed repressed childhood sexual disturbance, primarily in the form of the male’s Oedipal complex and the female’s Electra Complex, the root cause of adult neurotic behavior. This scheduled week of lectures and ceremonies in New York and Boston was to be the zenith of Freud’s outing of the salacious workings of the human mind – a mite premature if not overly ambitious, and decidedly disastrous.

At the same time as this non-event, first one and then another ingénue of New York’s noblesse is indecently assaulted, one even murdered. Dr. Younger, a newly commissioned physician specializing in psychiatry and ingenuously devoted to Freud’s shattering of convention, is acquainted with one victim and insinuates himself at her bedside to aid the young beauty in recovering her voice and memory of the horror. The circumstances couldn’t be more ideal for applying psychoanalysis, made nearly perfect by Freud being a chat away.

Rubenfeld is a professor of law at Yale University. Previously he studied at the Juilliard School of Drama, specializing in Shakespeare. He obviously knows research and has left no detail about Freud, turn-of-the-century New York, or Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” out of this fascinating novel. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be ...” soliloquy plays large in this story, its fraught interpretation made clear by Freud and used by young Dr. Younger to enlighten the mystery of these heinous crimes.

Notwithstanding the embedded history and psychology in The Interpretation of Murder, the New York City police department, coroner and Mayor McClellan himself are on high alert because of this perpetration to the network of grandee families. All do their best to keep besmirching information from the press and the rest of fashionable society.

In traipses Detective Jimmy Littlemore, in charge of the investigation and wholly out of his element. His name, ingeniously contrived by Rubenfeld, is a non sequitur in the flesh. Police procedure in 1909 is without forensics, and Littlemore, it seems for a long time, is little more than incapable of solving what appears to be the beginning of serial sexual assaults to debutantes by one of their own.

The crimes – analyzed through psychoanalysis, Shakespeare and the plodding but savvy police work of Littlemore – get solved to the dissatisfaction of everyone but the reader. Rubenfeld has written a classic page turner populated with historical people, places and customs. I suspect this book is Rubenfeld’s magnum opus and he will not write another – why would he? It’s nearly perfect. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.