The Interpretation Of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld

Great conceit weaves facts on Freud into accomplished, if uneven, thriller
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This first novel by legal academic Jed Rubenfeld represents an act of will on the part of its author. Rubenfeld, a professor of constitutional and criminal law at Yale, has written non-fiction books on his specialist subjects, which sold "about six copies". He hankered for book sales that at least crept into double figures, and decided to take the route that brought Umberto Eco such phenomenal success: a "popular" historical thriller, with ideas freighted into the assiduously researched detail. But is The Interpretation of Murder as audacious a piece of work as Eco's The Name of the Rose?

Certainly, Rubenfeld shows real acumen in the choice of the acorn from which his novel grew. In 1909, Sigmund Freud arrived by steamship in New York. The details of his stay in the city are shrouded in mystery, but left a psychological scar on the father of psychoanalysis. Freud was haunted by something that happened during his brief Manhattan sojourn, and ever after blamed several neuroses on the despised city.

What happened to Freud? Rubenfeld's brilliant conceit is to weave this real-life event into an accomplished thriller, with the glittering façade of New York concealing dark secrets - a Freudian metaphor, in fact. On the morning that Freud arrives, the body of a beautiful debutante is discovered strangled in her penthouse. Then another member of the social elite, Nora Acton, is found tied to a chandelier, her body mutilated and her mind damaged by the assault. She has no memory of it and cannot identify her attacker.

Dr Stratham Younger, a student of psychoanalysis and a dedicated admirer of its Viennese founder, asks Freud to aid him in analysing this beautiful victim. All three individuals - Younger, Freud and Nora - are to discover unpalatable truths.

With the stolid and difficult Freud as anchor of his narrative, Rubenfeld takes the reader on a beguiling tour of the opium dens of Chinatown, the haunts of the rich at Gramercy Park and even the subterranean construction site of the Manhattan Bridge under the East River. If he lacks the rigour of a more experienced novelist in fusing the disparate elements in his narrative, his admiration for the troubled Freud carries all before it. When he was studying Freud as a young man, Freud's reputation was in flux, but Rubenfeld was always ready to defend his hero. That enthusiasm is the wellspring of this uneven but dazzling novel.