Friday 10 April 2009

Book Review: Jeb Rubenfield – An Interpretation of Murder

Although I do like the mystery, twists and turns and eventual bombshell disclosure of a good detective novel, I find that they are mostly predictable, poorly written and sometimes feel more like someone has written a movie script. An Interpretation of Murder, in contrast, was a nice surprise.

The novel is set in 1900’s New York with Freud, Jung and various other disciples of the new psychoanalytic movement arriving in America to promote their new therapy through a series of lectures. The narrator is the brilliant young Doctor Stratham Younger who is keen to accompany Freud on his tour.

Freud’s arrival coincides with the brutal murder of one wealthy and beautiful young heiress and the attempted murder of another. The victim of the attempted murder is left mute and suffering from amnesia, prompting the Mayor of New York to call in Doctor Younger in the hope that he can help stimulate a memory of the murderer before he strikes again. At the same time the city’s beleaguered coroner, Hugel, is brought into investigate with the assistance of Detective Littlemore, the most incorruptible officer on the force.

In parallel Freud’s arrival is accompanied by a campaign to humiliate and discredit him and his movement which is depicted as perverted and immoral. Three unnamed, powerful and wealthy men appear throughout the book in relation to the smear campaign and the murders, but their involvement is never clarified.

The social and political atmosphere of the time is evoked brilliantly in this novel. The story takes off at a time when a new sky-scraper breaks the record for tallest building every week in New York, the wealthy matriarchs of the city try to outdo each other in building bigger houses, wearing bigger jewels and furs and being seen with more of the right people. The rich are bright and beautiful and decadent to the extreme. In contrast Rubenfield also portrays the less sparkling side of New York: young women working in factories with sweat-shop conditions, construction workers whose lives are completely disposable, strikers beaten and thrown into jail and nervy brothel madams.

The detail is amazing in every aspect – from the language used to the descriptions of costume, buildings, transport and people, it feels completely accurate. You can see that the author took the care to ensure his novel was well-researched, but it all feels so effortless. A good word for the writing and the way it carries you along would be “elegant”.

All of these things though would have been window-dressing without the one thing I always look for – a cracking good story. An Interpretation of Murder has an engrossing fast-moving plot that leaves you eager to know who the murderer is.

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