Friday, July 10, 2009

The Interpretation of Murder by Jeb Rubenfeld

New York City, 1909. The first skyscrapers were being built and luxurious apartment living became all the rage amongst the rich and fashionable city dwellers. Elizabeth Riverford, a young socialite is found murdered in the newly built Balmoral Hotel in Manhattan by a killer with a penchant for knives, silk ties, and a riding crop.

Psychoanalyst, Stratham Younger is scheduled to meet Dr Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to speak at American Universities in an age when psychoanalysis is in its infancy. Freud offers advice to the budding psychoanalyst, Younger, as to how to treat one of the murderer's surviving victims. The young lady, Nora Acton, has lost her voice and cannot remember the details of her attack, but her injuries are remarkably similar to the murdered girl's.

Dr Younger finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to the child-like Nora, whose inner thoughts are darker than even Younger can sometimes cope with. To complicate matters, Younger is also caught up in the rivalry between Freud and protégé Carl Jung, as well as corruption in the New York police force, a seedy era in Chinatown, the construction of the Manhattan Bridge, and Younger’s changing theories about the motivations of Hamlet.

The detective investigating the murder, Jimmie Littlemore, takes a leading role in the narrative, with his red bow tie and straw boater. Coroner Hugel asks for Littlemore to be assigned to the case because, ‘He cannot be bought. At least not yet’.

The story takes the reader into seedier parts of the city and brothel’s used by leading citizens, as well as the intimidation of sweatshop workers in an age of budding union organisation.
Mr Rubenfeld's account of what New York looked, smelled and felt like during the turn of the century when skyscrapers began to rise out of the busy streets.

Added to that, the fact Dr Younger was also a nephew of Mamie Stuyvesant Fish and is invited to one of her socialite parties, gives us yet another dimension in the Vanderbilt/Astor feud which I found particularly compelling.

Added to the mix of characters are the wealthy industrialist who thinks he is completely beyond the law, together with the Mayor who is in his pocket, a well meaning but inadequate coroner and various city workers who are out for themselves and for whom the truth is a distant concept they have no aspiration for.

Carl Jung is portrayed as having serious personality order of his own which degenerates into insanity, but the amiable Dr Freud seems unaffected by his raw ambition and seems to want to protect the man. Freud himself also has a physiologically weak bladder, which I felt didn't add much to the story but I'm sure the author had a reason for it.

I found the descriptions of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the terrible conditions the workers lived and died in, compared to the grand houses of the wealthy in Gramercy Park, the onset of mechanical taxicabs in New York – green ones not yellow, was so atmospheric I could see it all.

My only criticism would be that the author pontificates at length on the meaning of Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' speech and the motives for his procrastination in the killing of his uncle. I couldn't help feeling these convoluted theories had no relevance to this story other than to pad out an already very long book – over 200,000 words.

I would heartily recommend this story, for all the reasons I stated earlier and felt my skimming through the 'Hamlet' parts didn't detract from my own enjoyment at all. There is also an informative website at: www.interpretationofmurder.com which also gives more information about New York in 1909 with maps, and some interesting information about Sigmund Freud.

by Anita Davison
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