Book Club: The Interpretation of Murder

jed-rubenfeld-the-interpretation-of-murderThis month’s book is Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder. For those of you new to The Crafty Writer, once every month or two we discuss a best-selling book from a writer’s perspective. We divide our discussion under the following headings:

I’ll make some initial observations and pose suggested questions for discussion. Some of our regular book club participants are published authors themselves, so it’s a great opportunity to share their knowledge and insight. You don’t have to do anything to join other than pitch up and leave your comments and observations below. If you haven’t got a copy of the book yet you can buy it through The Crafty Writer Bookshop (in the book club category) and we will get a small commission that keeps the Book Club and all the information on this website free.

Author

The Interpretation of Murder is Jed Rubenfeld’s debut novel. His ‘day job’ is as a law professor at Yale University. He has had two non-fiction books published, both on constitutional law. But he chose a criminal rather than civil investigation as the subject of his novel, indicating a natural sense of the dramatic. This isn’t surprising, as in his varied academic life he studied Shakespeare at the Juliard School of Drama. He also has an interest in psychology, and wrote an undergraduate thesis on Freud. It is these three strands that come together in The Interpretation of Murder as a Hamlet-obsessed Freudian psychoanalyst joins forces with a police detective to solve a series of murders in 1909 New York. He is also, it seems, deeply interested in architecture, as this both physically and metaphorically provides the structure of the novel.

For Discussion:
It’s always said that a writer’s first novel is a reflection of self. This certainly appears to be the case in this book. It will be interesting to see what his next offering will entail. What are the pros and cons of writing from self? Is there a difference between this and writing your self into a book? What do you think about the age-old mantra ‘write what you know’?

Genre

Although this is essentially a psychological thriller, it is also a historical and police procedural, with the pivotal question of ‘who dunnit?’ keeping us reading to the end. Rubenfeld draws on all the classic mystery genre conventions: a mystery to be solved; a hero or heroine; a side-kick or partner; a rival; a villain; conflict; obstacles and setbacks; clues; red herrings; motives; twists; resolution.

The one convention that Rubenfeld majors on is the red herring – but not, in my opinion, always successfully, particularly with regards to Carl Jung (maybe it’s because I was obsessed with Jung at university that I take Rubenfeld’s insinuations as a personal affront – now analyse that :) ). However, the ultimate red herring turned out to be the murder itself, which, I thought was fiendishly clever.

In terms of the historical, this is history of forensic science, psychology, architecture and the social strata of the city of New York. It makes for fascinating reading. However, I found the dissertation on New York society rather irritating at times, and caught myself skipping over some of those sections. That’s the danger of a historical mystery / thriller: the setting can weigh down the plot. But the twists and turns of Rubenfeld’s intricate story kept me reading to the end. I also found the Hamlet discourse rather boring (despite being a Shakespeare fan) as it seemed incongruous to the rest of the plot. By the end though, I saw the author’s intentions in creating a thematic through line between the murder and Freudian psychology, but I still think we could have done without it.

For Discussion:
I’m sure many of you disagree with me about there being too many cross-threads in the book; please feel free to argue the other side.

Plot and structure

I’ve already said that The Interpretation of Murder is very cleverly plotted, and, while I found some of the tangential elements distracting, Rubenfeld did not fail to wrap up every loose thread at the end. Bravo! It’s one of those stories that you want to read again to see how many clues you picked up on. That said, I did think that dropping the Coroner Hugel storyline so early in the book odd and did not think the reveal at the end justified it. I thought that Rubenfeld managed his release of information on a need-to-know basis very well, and maintained the tension and pace masterfully. By the middle of the book he had ‘trained’ me to pay attention during the esoteric architectural, social, literary or psychological discourses, because I realised that everything had meaning or at least would have, by the end.

The two main plot lines are that of the Freud / Jung rivalry and Freud’s attempt to break in to America, and then the investigation of the murder apparently perpetrated by a politically well-connected fiend. The two main plotlines are held together by the bridging plot of Stratham and Nora’s relationship. These inter-connected stories held my attention to the end, but, while I was satisfied with the resolution of the murder plot and the romance, the Freud / Jung story was resolved rather lamely – the cop simply putting a bit of pressure on the baddy and Jung finally having the courage to visit a high-class brothel. Admittedly, the Freud / Jung plotline was constrained by the pre-existing facts, although, like all good authors, Rubenfeld felt free to deviate from the historical party line when it suited him – to which he freely admitted in the afterward.

For discussion:
In a historical novel, how may the reported facts of history impinge upon an author’s plotting choices? How may this be overcome?

Writing style

A distinctive style element of the book (which of course affected structure) was the alternation between first person narration with Stratham Younger and third person in the other sections. The strength of this is that the author can have the benefit of the intimacy of the first person, allowing us to be privy to the narrating character’s thoughts (which, because of the Hamlet sub-plot, became necessary) and the freedom to allow us to see developments that the main character could not see. However, the two sections blended together in my opinion as the ‘voice’ of Stratham was far too close to that of the third person narrator. This switch between third and first person only works well when the first person has a distinct voice – a classic example is The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

For discussion:
In terms of Rubenfeld’s actual writing style – ie his choice of words, syntax, imagery, etc – I would suggest that unlike Markus Zusak (the author of our last Book Club novel) there is nothing particularly distinctive. Within this genre, however, that may not be a bad thing. Why is this? Do you agree or disagree?

Characterisation

All of Rubenfeld’s characters, whether historical or fictional, are well-rounded and believable. This is because he provides all of them, even the minor ones, with motivation. All of the characters want something and are prepared to act to get it (which is ironic in a plot that revolves around solving the mystery of why Hamlet couldn’t ‘act’). This provides them and the plot with forward momentum. The historical characters of Freud and Jung are of course fictionalised – this is Rubenfeld’s view of who these men were. The problem is, it clashes with mine. My view of Jung and Freud has been shaped by Jung’s own writings in which the Austrian ‘father’ of psychoanalysis is portrayed as petty and hysterical. Because of this, I struggled to recognise Rubenfeld’s warm, wise patriarch as being the ‘real’ Freud and the deluded pervert as Jung. That is a risk you take with using well-known historical characters. Of course my version of these two men is just as much a ‘fiction’ as Rubenfeld’s as it is my interpretation of the facts that has formed it – you see, I did get the point of the title too:).

For discussion:
Have you read any novels where you did not agree with the characterisation of historical characters? Do you share my view, despite me disagreeing with his interpretation of Freud and Jung, that all of Rubenfeld’s characters were well-rounded, motivated and believable (as fictional constructs, not historical personages)?

Marketing

Although written by an American and set in America, this book has been phenomenally successful in the UK. It was the winner of the Galaxy British Book Awards Best Read of 2007 and the Richard and Judy Book Club. The Richard and Judy win has catapulted this novel to the top of UK charts where it still remains in the Top 10 in mid 2008. It does not appear to have done as well in America. Not being American, I can’t really say why this is the case.

For discussion:
Is the Interpretation of Murder’s success in the UK simply a matter of it getting noticed by the ‘right people’ (ie Richard and Judy), or is it something else? If you’re American, could you speculate as to why the book has not done as well in the States?

Now it’s your turn. Please join in the discussion by leaving your comments below, and don’t forget to vote in our poll:

Which Booker prize nominee would you like to discuss in Book Club?

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bill-bryson-shakespeare-the-world-as-a-stageThe next Book Club book will be Shakespeare: the World as a Stage by Bill Bryson. It’s a short read so we’ll aim to discuss it at the end of August. And now that you’ve stopped laughing at my apparent about-turn, I can assure you I have very good reasons for choosing this book above and beyond penance for sniping at the Bard this month!

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5 comments on “Book Club: The Interpretation of Murder

  1. Joanna Campbell Slan on said:

    Having lived in the UK for a year back in 2001, I can weigh in that Richard and Judy are the equivalents to Oprah here in many ways. But I think the sales success goes beyond that…

    I noticed that the British national culture puts a higher value on reading than what we have here in the US. Sometimes, I think that the US is like my teenage son–full of energy and bravado and too antsy to sit still long enough to think deeply. Whereas the UK is this lovely dowager (I see Helen Mirren), full of wisdom and with a deep reverence for all things thoughtful and penetrating.

    Now if any other US folks read this (I know better than to call us Americans–after all, there’s also Central and South America!)I’ll probably be headed for Holloway with their help. But we’re a young nation. As with all youngsters, we’d probably benefit from slowing down and listening and thinking rather than moving at a frenetic pace. Reading a good book would be a great start…

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Thanks for the insight, Joanna, and sorry for calling you an American! Ya live ‘n learn every day. Mind you, a dowager … :) My charming neighbours (may they never read this) could hardly be accused of high culture either.

  3. Duncan on said:

    I read this a few months ago, and my brain is like a sieve for remembering the finer points of books I didn’t read yesterday, but just a few quick comments.

    Generally, I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said. It was an enjoyable read, and it did the twists and turn and red herrings in an accomplished fashion. But yes, it’s also a fairly standard piece of genre fiction – there’s nothing special about his choice of language and nothing that makes me think I could pick up another book by him and recognise the author. In this light, the twists and turns were fitting for the genre but there was nothing unusual about the pacing or way that they were revealed which particularly stood out.

    I guess what probably made this sell is that it’s genre fiction that sounds really clever-clever and brainy, but is accessible enough for a general audience that it flatters their intelligence. Personally, I don’t actually think it is that clever – I agree that the diversions about psychoanalysis were overdone, the Hamlet stuff more so (particuarly as I spent a whole term as a schoolboy analysing every last damn line of Hamlet already), and the period details slightly clunky. In short, yes, very much a first novel, and came across as the author wearing his learning on his sleeve, when a more experienced author might have used the same clever ideas and breadth of knowledge in a more subtle and integrated fashion.

    Lastly, I thought it didn’t actually do anything new. It reminded me of Caleb Carr’s ‘The Alienist’, which covered similar ground 15 or so years ago by linking together the early history of psychoanalysis with a murder mystery, but is more claustrophobic and really does feel rooted in a specific time and place.

    For all that, the Interpretation of Murder is not a bad book, and is obviously doing something right given its massive success. But I don’t think it’s a classic that we’ll be remembering in a few years…

  4. Karen Hall on said:

    I agree with much that has been said. This is not a genre which I would normally read although the Richard & Judy hype had made me interested and it’s good to read something different now and then.

    I thought that there were too many threads being interwoven and at times not only found them difficult to follow but wasn’t quite sure why they were there. The Hamlet theme annoyed me mainly because I wasn’t qute sure why a psychoanalist would want to spend so much time analysing a fictional character. (OK he was a real character but what Shakespeare puts into him whilst fascnating doesn’t seem to warrant a psychoanalists total obsession. Or is that just me?) Obviously there was a need to draw in the fact that things are not always what they seem but for me it detracted from the plot.

    I found it clever, if a bit plodding and the red herrings did their job of keeping me guessing but I am not going to rush to read something else by him.

    Maybe Duncan has hit on something regarding it flattering the intelligence of the mass reader and that is probably where Richard and Judy come in – at the risk of making an atrocious generalisation their demographic probably read less complex material. I’m trying to be polite here but am tempted to just mention Heat & OK. (naughty of me)

    Forgive me but I quite liked the period details probably because it’s a period/country about which I know nothing but I’ll agree that they weren’t subtle.

    I think there is a lot to be said for writing what you know, especially as a beginner but it has it’s dangers, one of which being the problem of throwing as much knowledge as possible at your writing instead of pacing yourself and I think Rubenfeld might have fallen into that a bit.

    For myself, as a beginner, I am sticking to what I know but find that nearly all my characters end up being bits of me. Any suggestions as to how to avoid this are welcome. :)

  5. Fiona on said:

    But Karen, we like all the bits of you! Now Jung (ahem) believes that all literary characters are and should be a reflection of ourselves – or an amalgamation of our componenet parts. Check out his theory of the universal archetypes in literature: Jung, C. G., (1934–1954). The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. (1981 2nd ed. Collected Works Vol.9 Part 1), Princeton, N.J.: Bollingen. ISBN 0-691-01833-2

    For a quickie, here’s Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archetype

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