Law professor publishes first mystery novel

While the rights to privacy and free speech are certainly titillating in their own right, sometimes a little murder, sex and Freudian psychoanalysis can come as a welcome break from the study of constitutional law.

Or so it seemed for Jed Rubenfeld, a Yale law professor whose first novel, “The Interpretation of Murder,” was released last month by Holt & Co. The novel, which made the New York Times extended best-seller list despite being called “smutty and pretentious” by Ada Calhoun in a New York Times book review, recounts a fictional murder mystery underlying Sigmund Freud’s first and only visit to America. While the book’s subject matter has often been cause for amusement at Yale, Rubenfeld’s students and colleagues have expressed support for the newly-minted novelist in their midst.

Rubenfeld said he first got the idea to write a novel from his wife after the “shining success” of his last legal work.

“It sold six copies,” he said.

The novel’s plot grew from the mystery of Freud’s bitterness upon leaving America, Rubenfeld said. Despite the fact that the trip was a tremendous success, he said, the psychoanalyst referred to Americans as “savages, primitives and criminals” for the rest of his life. Because no one knows why Freud’s apparently glorious reception turned him so vehemently against the country that catapulted him to fame, Rubenfeld said he decided the story would be perfect to explore in a novel.

“Imagine something happened to him in New York,” Rubenfeld said. “Imagine he becomes involved in a psychoanalytic case, a murder case.”

And that is what Rubenfeld does.

What follows is a theatrical and tantalizing tale, oscillating between extremes of intellectualism — including discussions of Hamlet’s lack of action — and eroticism, as when, at the end of Part III, an assailant “place[s] his knee against her supine form, and extinguish[es] the glowing cigarette directly on her skin, down there, only an inch or two from her most private part.”

Taking his readers into the New York of 1909 — streets jammed with horses and cars, skies newly populated by telephone lines and skyscrapers — Rubenfeld stays true to the historical period.

“I cheated,” he said. “It’s not that hard to write a novel if you take 94 percent factual material and just add 6 percent — the murder mystery.”

Even the murder, Rubenfeld said, is based on Freud’s famous “Dora” case study.

Despite his current nonchalance towards the writing process, the transition from law journals to fiction was not without its birthing pains, Rubenfeld said.

Having never touched fiction in his life, his first draft — 150 pages of initial inspiration — broke all the rules of the trade, he said.

“I gave [the draft] to someone who reads [historical fiction], and she comes back and says ‘I didn’t know they had spiral, glass elevators in New York back then,’” Rubenfeld said.

But the book was fiction, Rubenfeld said he had responded, and he had simply made it up.

“She got so mad,” Rubenfeld said. “She got so incredibly mad.”

But he learned quickly, he said, that historical fiction readers expect complete historical accuracy, and he repented with copious hours in the library, making his way through over 100 books on New York in 1909.

“I don’t have the imagination of a great novelist,” he said. “So the [real] New York of 1909 was much more interesting than the imagined [New York]. The old high society, … the stodgy culture, was being replaced by big money, celebrities, power and scandal.”

Rubenfeld’s novel feeds off that combination of possible vices from its very start. The book’s online promotional Web site described the opening scenes.

“[A] stunning young woman is found dangling from a chandelier — whipped, mutilated, and strangled,” the Web site reads. “The next day, a second beauty — a rebellious heiress who scorns both high society and her less adventurous parents — barely escapes the killer.”

Fellow Yale law professor Robert Gordon, who called Rubenfeld a “good friend,” said he has bought the book and intends to read it soon.

“It sounds like a very promising topic,” he said.

The occasionally lurid subject matter sparked discussion among Rubenfeld’s law students.

“It was a curiosity for sure,” Chris Sherman LAW ’09 said. “There were rumors when we got into [Rubenfeld’s] class. We knew it was something you wouldn’t usually expect a law professor to come out with.”

But Sherman said the novel’s success should come as no surprise, since Rubenfeld is an especially dynamic lecturer.

“[Rubenfeld’s] class is literally like going to the theater,” he said. “He knows how to weave a great story. Two hours on the Commerce Clause is engaging, so throw in some murder, some scintillation, and it has to be good.”

Fellow classmate Chi Pan LAW ’09, who has read the book, said it was a page-turner.

“Especially towards the end, I could not put it down, even though I had Professor Rubenfeld’s class the next day,” she said in an e-mail. “I did finish reading it — at the cost of four hours of sleep.”

The novel cost the publishers much more. Prior to release, Rubenfeld received an $800,000 advance from Holt, which he credited to chance.

“It was a lucky premise,” he said. “And I was lucky to get an amazing agent.”

Rubenfeld said his agent did not sell to the highest bidder but instead went with an offer for only the North American rights and then proceeded to sell the international rights separately.

“We took a chance,” he said. “Now it’s being translated in 28 different languages.”

The movie rights to “The Interpretation of Murder” were sold to Warner Bros. for a six-figure sum — with an option for seven-figures if the movie gets made, Rubenfeld said.

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