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BOOK REVIEW: The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld


It is a historical fact that in 1909 Sigmund Freud paid his only visit to the U.S., after which he labeled Americans as “savages.” In Jed Rubenfeld’s debut novel, The Interpretation of Murder, Freud’s arrival in New York coincides with a rash of attacks against beautiful young socialites. Dr. Stratham Younger, a Freud devotee, is asked to help the second victim, Nora Acton, regain her memory. He turns to his teacher for help in treating his reluctant patient and, in turn, must aid his mentor by allaying the cloud of suspicion hovering around Freud.

The Interpretation of Murder is based around the real-life mystery surrounding Freud’s visit to America in 1909. In an interview with, Rubenfeld says he was inspire to use, as the jumping off point for his novel, a basic question which has puzzled Freud’s biographers for a long time: “Could something have happened to Freud during his week in Manhattan, something we still don’t know about, some event that could account for his severe antipathy to America?” In his detailed author’s note, Rubenfeld carefully delineates the line between his fiction and historical fact.

Rubenfeld portrays a New York City well known to readers of Edith Wharton and Henry James’ work. Dr. Stratham Younger and many of the other characters inhabit the world of the beau monde, the Vanderbilts and the Astors. These glittering figures wander carelessly through the events portrayed with the same cold disdain portrayed so cleverly in The House of Mirth. By invoking the spectre of Wharton and James’ writing styles, Rubenfeld effortlessly exposes the hollowness filling the houses and settings his killer treads.

This world of excess is in sharp contrast with corruption found within the New York police department and government. In these early days of investigation, crime scene investigation is almost non-existent and the wealthy can easily circumvent procedure. What is particularly fascinating in The Interpretation of Murder is the commentary he provides on American society in the early 1900s. The resistance to Freud’s theories is expounded upon at great length and the developing rift between Freud and Jung gradually exposed.

Many of the theories expressed are laughable viewed from a century later; others however, are extremely repugnant. Many Americans felt that Freud was promoting sexual license and believe his theories would lead to all sorts of social ills. At a dinner party attended by Freud, one of the guests suggested that, as a man of science, Freud should be concerned with the dangers of sexual emancipation such as the problems of overpopulation. His proposal is that every immigrant without means should be sterilized so that American society “are not required to bear the charge of their unfit offspring, who end up as beggars and thieves” although the guest is willing to “make an exception, of course, for those who can pass an intelligence test.”

Early in The Interpretation of Murder, Dr. Younger explains one of his most exciting theories – man’s moments of revolutionary genius have all happened at the turn of a century, specifically in the first decade of a century. Rubenfeld has brought this dynamic period vividly to life and proposed a fascinating solution to the mystery of Freud’s visit to and the rise of psychoanalysis in America.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0805080988
ISBN13: 9780805080988

384 Pages
Publisher: Henry Holt
Publication Date: September 7, 2006


posted under Debut Novel, mystery
3 Comments to

“BOOK REVIEW: The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld”

  1. On November 27th, 2006 at 8:34 pm Susan Helene Gottfried Says:

    I’ve been hearing a bit about this book and have been curious. Now that you’ve reviewed it favorably, you KNOW I’ve got to get my hands on it!

  2. On November 29th, 2006 at 11:18 am Candy Says:

    Gosh, that looks so so so interesting! The problem is that it also looks really deep as well. Was it really bogged down feeling?

  3. On November 29th, 2006 at 11:33 am Janelle Martin Says:

    Hi Candy – the book caught me up in the action so quickly that it didn’t feel bogged down at all. There is a lot of depth there but you can skim it if you just want to enjoy the mystery.

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