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THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER

By Jed Rubenfeld

Henry Holt, 2006 ($26.00)
ISBN: 0-8050-8098-8

Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel

In August, 1909, Sigmund Freud made his first and only trip to the United States to give a series of lectures at Clark University. He was accompanied by his protégé Carl Jung and the Hungarian Sandor Ferenczi. This much is historical fact. What happens to Freud and his party between their arrival in New York City and their trip to the university for the lecture series is mostly fictitious, but plausible. Rubenfeld almost seamlessly interweaves historical truth with fictional characters and situations.

Freud's party is met at the docks by Dr. Stratham Younger, a recent Harvard graduate and America's first psychoanalyst, and his mentor, Dr. Abraham Brill. Younger has been charged with looking after the travelers while they spend a few days in the city. The travelers are suitably impressed with the vibrant metropolis, with its soaring skyscrapers, some as high as fifty-eight stories, state-of-the-art subway system, and evidence of growth and prosperity everywhere.

Soon after their arrival, a pair of horrendous crimes are committed against two beautiful young socialites. Elizabeth Riverford is found in the luxurious penthouse of the Balmoral, a posh new apartment building owned by George Banwell. Banwell is one of the foremost movers and shakers in the city, a man used to having his orders obeyed without question. When Ms. Riverford's body is discovered, naked, beaten, and strangled with a gentleman's silk scarf, Banwell does his best to keep things quiet. As a friend of the mayor, he has the means to do so.

Soon after, Nora Acton, another young socialite, is attacked in her own home. She is also beaten and choked, but the attacker is scared off before he can finish the job. The young woman is so traumatized that she cannot speak, and has no memory of what happened to her. Freud and his party are enlisted to try to help her. Freud assigns Dr. Younger to carry on long-term therapy with Nora, a task that proves formidable. The young lady is temperamental, rebelling against the constraints of polite society, and she leads Younger on a merry chase. There are others who want to see the crime go unsolved, including a shadowy group calling themselves the Triumvirate, a trio of powerful and influential men with their own agenda. People are often not what they seem, and there is a terrific twist at the end I didn't see coming.

The search for the killer takes the reader from the heights of society to the depths of the East River, exploring the lives of the rich and famous and the downtrodden Chinatown laborers and factory girls. A particularly harrowing scene takes place at the site of the new Manhattan Bridge. Rubenfeld's descriptions of New York City at the turn of the last century are fascinating. The large cast of characters, both real and fictional, are interesting and realistic. One thing I did find sometimes disconcerting is the format of the book. The chapters featuring Dr. Younger, the main protagonist, are told in his first person point of view. Other chapters are in third person, often from the point of view of multiple characters in the same chapter. The transition from one character to another is sometimes confusing and jarring. Younger, who wanted to be a Shakespearean scholar, not a doctor, spends a lot of time meditating on Hamlet's question, "to be or not to be," which got irritating at times.

It can be tricky to use historical characters fictionally. Rubenfeld has done an excellent job, and it is obvious he did a great deal of research and took pains to accurately portray Freud and Jung. If anyone is interested in finding more information on Freud's trip, Saul Rosenzweig has written the definitive book: Freud, Jung and Hall the King-Maker; the historic expedition to America. In browsing through it, I can see that Rubenfeld has stayed close to the actual events of the trip. Freud never returned to the United States, and remarked that its citizens were savages. Why he felt this way has never been discovered; Rubenfeld offers an entertaining "explanation" for Freud's reaction. Despite a few minor quibbles, I very much enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.

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