Jed Rubenfeld is a Profesor of Law from Yale University and this novel, one of the big hits of 2006-07 in the UK, is pretty much what you might expect. It is a literary thriller and a well-plotted one at that. I found it interesting that the edition I have carries an endorsement from Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow. I didn’t notice this until I had finished the book, but all the way through I was thinking that this reminded me very much of The Dante Club, which I read a couple of years or so ago, with its blending of real-life intellectuals from history with low-life fictional characters and historical fact with fictional imaginings.
It is certainly a compelling read and is written by someone who knows what they are doing when it comes to writing, but I felt that Rubenfeld hadn’t quite yet got the hang of fiction writing. The mystery becomes increasingly convoluted and then everything is revealed in a mad rush at the very end, rather than the mystery being tantalisingly unravelled throughout by a series of well-placed clues. Even the most seasoned reader of detective literature would not have a chance of getting anywhere near the solution. The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow the reader to play the role of detective effectively.
The other weakness in the book for me was the portrayal of the real-life characters. Freud is portrayed as partly King Lear and partly a genius with almost clairvoyant abilities, surrounded by a group of intellectual sycophants and revelling in his own guru-like status, whereas Carl Jung is portrayed as a scheming and delusional egotist. (Perhaps, rather, Jung is Iago to Freud’s Othello?) Both of these may be true, but we are offered no other dimensions to their characters. The fictional (but partly autobiographical??) ‘central’ character, Dr Younger, a disciple of Freud, seems obsessed by Hamlet and its use as a tool for unlocking the mysteries of the Oedipus Complex. In fact, Freud, Jung and Younger (a joke, here, presumably) and their fellow psychoanalysts seem incapable of talking about anything but psychoanalysis. In the author’s biography, we are told that Rubenfeld wrote his undergraduate dissertation on Freud and also studied Shakespeare. It seems that he is trying to cram all of his student work into this novel (why waste all that research?) and it gets a little tiresome after a while.
On the other hand, I found the fictional characters much more interesting and appealing. Whilst some of them are similarly one-dimensional (especially Banwell, the speculator and entrepreneur), the character of Detective Littlemore grows into the most attractive and intelligent of them all, in spite of his lack of formal education. I ended up harbouring both an affection for Littlemore (he was the one who kept me reading and enjoying the book) and a sympathy for his having to live surrounded by these other insufferable people. Now I’m not sure what Rubenfeld’s Freud would have made of that!