Sigmund Freud and friends play Sherlock Holmes in an Alienist-style historical murder mystery.
Human monsters stalk the teeming streets of early-20th-century New York City in Rubenfeld’s ambitious debut. A sadist is assaulting rich society girls with whips and blades. Is the villain unscrupulous, wealthy entrepreneur George Banwell, who is mean to his horses and denies his gorgeous wife sexual intercourse because pregnancy would ruin her figure? Is it mysterious William Leon of Chinatown, in whose room one of the corpses is found? Or could Harry Thaw, notorious murderer of Stanford White, be slipping out from Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane? Freud, making his only visit to America, to lecture at Clark University, is in New York with a group of colleagues. Among them is one who seems crazy enough to be another murder suspect: Carl Jung. Carl has violent mood swings, carries a pocket revolver, lies about his ancestors and believes that he can hear supernatural voices. Freud’s cohorts also include Dr. Stratham Younger, an American psychoanalyst given the job of analyzing lovely 17-year-old Nora Acton, who has survived an attack by the sex maniac but can’t remember anything about it. Into this already-teeming stew, the author tosses a group of powerful grandees scheming to ruin Freud’s visit and reputation, political corruption, the plight of the working poor, the coming psychological revolution, Oedipus, Hamlet and much more. Rubenfeld tends to slice and splice his chapters in cinematic fashion; Younger’s first-person narration repeatedly jars with the remainder of the book’s third-person perspective, often spoiling the buildup of tension. Other weaknesses include the author’s failure to establish exactly who the central character is. Eventually, relying heavily on bait-and-switch, the story reaches its conclusion, giving Freud the last, prophetic word.
Meaty and provocative, though also grandiose and calculated.