Monday, November 06, 2006

Murder, He Wrote

The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld, Read by Kirby Heyborne, Books on Tape, 2006

When will I learn? The thing is, you see, I’m the likely target audience of the book; I’m in the subset of the population who enjoy historical novels; I’m in the subset of historical novel fans who enjoy those starring major figures from the past; and I’m in the subset of fans of historical novels starring the famous who like to see such luminaries racing against the clock to solve a murder or three. (I’m even in the subset of society who admires and reads the work of Freud.) In short, if there were a novel aimed at me in particular, this would be it. Full-page advertisements in The New Yorker went a long way toward assuring me of a high-quality piece of work.

The plot of The Interpretation of Murder in brief is this: Sigmund Freud, in his one visit to America, assists the protagonist, the talented Dr. Stratham Younger, in attempting to psychoanalyze a young woman who was lucky enough to survive an attempt on her life by a murderer stalking young women. In this, he armchair assists Younger in hunting down the killer.
Our hero, our sometimes narrator, Dr. Younger, opens the novel recounting how he waited at the dock for the ship bringing Freud from Europe to America. This chapter of the disembarking guests and their hosts alternates with the scene of the first murder. If you know the history and early practitioners of psychoanalysis so many of the names in these opening chapters will be familiar: Ferenczi, Brill, Strachey, and Jung. The counterpoint method of going back and forth between these psychoanalytic luminaries and a woman’s sexualized assault is at best a device and at worst a poorly chosen means of foisting suspense upon the reader.

I suppose with the increasing interest in our nation in the intersection of sex and murder, it was only a matter of time before a long-dead historical sex persona would be mixed into this, and who better than Freud? While Rubenfeld has clearly done his homework here, the historical details of early twentieth century New York are ripe and telling, his character studies of all the members of Freud’s inner circle seems a bit ensemble-theatrical. Brill as still wonderstruck immigrant, Strachey as pompous blowhard, Ferenczi as ribald jokester, Freud as all-seeing, all-knowing wise man, and Jung as disgruntled enemy in their midst.

In fact, it is the growing tension and rivalry between Freud and his chosen successor Jung that proves one of the novel’s less satisfying aspects. Rubenfeld belongs to the small but devoted claque of Freud worshippers who see in Jung a vicious apostate without redeeming qualities. I too prefer Freud’s insistence upon analytic science grounded in real world experience to Jung’s rather mystical mythologies, but the wholesale attack on the man seems one-sided and more the product of hero-worship than a solid presentation of facts. The author goes so far as to toss in a red herring suggestive that Jung is the murderer or is contemplating murder.

The narrative itself alternates between an omniscient teller of facts and Dr. Younger’s account of events though no distinction is given to us to suggest that these were old manuscripts of his or anything. We simply switch confusingly back and forth between the two.

Where this tactic follows a different investigator, the rather engaging young police detective Jimmy Littlemore or the conflicted coroner Hugel, it seems justifiable. Strange then to have single scene alternate between Younger’s account and an omniscient narrator who tells only the first couple minutes of the scene. Would that Rubenfeld had used this as a means of demonstrating how the facts are often open to interpretation by individuals. Instead, these juxtapositions merely happen, rather pointlessly it seems.

The novel then pursues essentially three tracks, the history of turn of the century New York, the Freud/Younger story, and the detective and coroner investigating the crimes. The set up has such promise, and there are some rather interesting historical notes such as the rivalry between two society ladies, Mrs. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Astor, as well as the struggles of Mayor George McClellan at the time in his construction of the Manhattan Bridge and his bucking of the Tammany Machine.

While all this is good and well, it seems at times as though the author lost sight of his murder mystery in favor of historical background. At the same time, Rubenfeld adds ever more plot to his novel, an increase in complication which seems not so much part of the tale, but in fact unnecessary filigree to make up for what ends up being somewhat of a thin story. Stir in constantly shifting perspectives and a gloss of sophistication is strewn over the material that it hasn’t earned.

Most bizarre among the inclusions is the Hamlet discussion wherein Rubenfeld, through Younger, tries to one up his hero with a differing take on the question as to why Hamlet dithers so much in the killing of Claudius. Neither the author nor his character can entirely bring themselves to wholesale swallow the Oedipus Compex, as psychoanalytic theory or as literary device. Freud would have it that Hamlet sees in the actions of Claudius his own hidden desires to murder his father and take his place in the Queen’s bed, and so to kill the usurping uncle would be a kind of suicide.

Amusingly, when Younger tells us what was the first thing that caught his attention and made him fall in love with Freud, the throwaway suggestion in a case study essay that Hamlet is plagued by Oedipal issues, it is accompanied by a thumbnail sketch of most of the plot of this “greatest play,” the “most performed play” and the “most written about” piece of literature in the whole wide world. So famous, yet so unknown that we need it outlined.

Rubenfeld puts a speech in Younger’s mouth, a discussion of what Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech really means, jumping on the idea that what is meant in that opening statement is “To really authentically be or not to; that is, to seem.” He suggests that this is the solution to the play, to Hamlet’s dithering and hesitation in avenging his father, his desire for authenticity and not for simulation. To be quite frank, this is a strained interpretation that does away with the entirety of the speech’s morbid considerations, and is possibly the dumbest interpretation in literature when the entire rest of the speech this line begins involves death and what comes after living ceases. While Hamlet may have issues with people who “seem” to mourn, “seem” to have feelings, think he “seems” sad, those are separate issues only partially related to the play and not touching this speech.

And it is in moments like this and the Jung red herring that the author tips his hand. There comes over the sensation that the author looks down upon the readers, that there is this belief here that such ideas and conceits are wicked clever when they really aren’t. Rubenfeld has talent, that much if obvious, but he fritters it away on the unnecessary and the unwise in shows of the talent that unfortunately expose that talent’s limitations.

In the end the book is somewhat a disappointment. The mystery isn’t as engaging as it should be, even if I didn’t guess the villain until the very end; the history is interesting but there isn’t enough of it; the psychology and the psychologists seem poorly understood; the murder plot is convoluted without purpose. All of the pieces had their intrigue and fascination, but it was too thinly spread out and shuffled around.

If there was a portion of the novel that read with an almost flawless authorial surety it was the dogged investigation by Littlemore. Here Rubenfeld has created a character who delights whenever he struts the stage. Possessed of an earnest innocence, a surprising wit, and a keener intelligence than he lets on, Littlemore on the trail as the book’s primary focus would have been a positive rapture and a revelation. Here’s to hoping if the author continues in this vein we see more of this character, please.

Reader Kirby Heyborne has a high little voice that sounds like a child’s which doesn’t sit well with most of the characters in the book, stern Victorian era men for the most part, though it does suit the only character of any interest in the book, gee-whiz detective Littlemore.

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