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The Interpretation of Murder Jed Rubenfeld Henry Holt & Co./$26 With “The Interpretation of Murder,” Jed Rubenfeld joins the ranks of highly paid novelists on the Yale Law School faculty. In 2002, Professor Stephen Carter reportedly raked in more than $4 million for a two-book deal for his novel, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.” And now � according to The Wall Street Journal � Rubenfeld has received advances totaling $1.8 million for his first novel. This kind of financial investment raises an obvious question: Was the result worth it? The answer seems to be no. “The Interpretation of Murder” is a murder mystery that aims both high (with Sigmund Freud and his followers engaging in extended discussions of psychoanalysis) and low (details of oral sex and lesbian intrigue). The combination of historical and fictional characters is familiar, as is the setting � early 20th century New York, a city undergoing extraordinary change due, in part, to the emergence of a wealthy plutocracy. In fact, we have read much of this story � including accounts of the relationship between Freud and Carl Jung, his protege � before, in the novels of E.L. Doctorow, Kevin Baker and Caleb Carr. Although “The Interpretation of Murder” revisits aspects of those novels, it’s not as good. The characters lack complexity, the descriptions of New York are labored, and the mystery is unnecessarily intricate. Rubenfeld tells the story of a vicious attack on a young heiress. The heiress is cared for by the novel’s narrator, a newly minted Harvard doctor named Stratham Younger. Younger is intelligent and sensitive, effectively an orphan � his father committed suicide, and Younger distances himself from his New York society family � and sufficiently naive to ask the questions necessary for the plot to be explained. Younger serves as an escort on Freud’s only visit to the United States. This 1909 visit provides the novel’s historical context. Freud has arrived with his entourage to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Massachusetts. It is well known that Freud was overwhelmed by America on his visit and that, at about the time of the visit, there was tension between Freud and Jung that would eventually develop into a rift. Freud and his followers visited Coney Island during their visit. Other novelists have made much of this trip, savoring the clash between Freud’s civilized sensibilities and Coney Island’s garish entertainments. In “Dreamland,” for example, Baker depicts Freud as disoriented by the rides and freak shows, while Jung delights in them. In Baker’s account, Freud is a somewhat fragile genius � and that makes him a fascinating character. In “The Interpretation of Murder,” Freud is depicted as perceptive, wise and avuncular. He handles Coney Island with the same ease that he brings to all of the challenging questions in the novel, whether it is analyzing guests at a dinner party or deciphering the psychological clues of the murder mystery. In Rubenfeld’s hands, Freud is occasionally witty in a self-referential way (during one conversation, Freud states that “sometimes a catarrh is just a catarrh”). But more often than not, Freud is simply brilliant. Just as Freud has been reduced to a caricature, so has Jung. He is not merely a restrained anti-Semite preparing to break with his Jewish mentor. In Rubenfeld’s account, Jung is also a sexual libertine (he visits prostitutes) and a kook (he plays children’s games that he invests with mythological significance). In “The Interpretation of Murder,” it is obvious who deserves our admiration and sympathy. The simplicity of these characterizations turns two of the most intriguing figures in psychology into dull characters. Of course, in a mystery, the depth of the characters is not as important as the mystery is. Unfortunately, compared to Doctorow’s “The Waterworks” and Carr’s “The Alienist,” this novel fails to offer a sufficiently engaging story. Although there are many twists, some seem contrived. In particular, some false leads are too obvious, while the resolution of the story relies, in part, on a secret passageway � permissible in a visual medium such as film, but unpersuasive in a novel. Rubenfeld also is not as adept as other novelists in describing New York City. In “The Alienist,” for instance, Carr immersed the reader in the details of New York City and forensic science at the turn of the century, and his passion for the era is contagious. Rubenfeld also takes the reader on a tour of New York City’s ambitious construction projects and diverse neighborhoods, but too often the descriptions feel obligatory, as if he had rewritten (albeit gracefully) his research notes and inserted them into the novel. Henry Holt & Co. paid $800,000 for the North American rights to the novel and has spent another $500,000 marketing the book, according to The Wall Street Journal. So far, the sale of hardcover copies hasn’t covered the publisher’s investment. Perhaps readers have reached the same conclusion as this reviewer � that the novel is not as compelling as other turn-of-the-century New York novels. Rodger D. Citron is an assistant professor of law at Touro Law Center. He is a graduate of Yale Law School, where in 1992 he was a student in Rubenfeld’s class on white-collar crime.

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