Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

Let me give you a tour through bizarre thought processes for notorious book acquirers (using myself as a case study, of course). Once upon a time, I put Jed Rubenfeld's other book, The Interpretation of Murder, on my big bookish wish list, and there it stayed and stayed and stays still along with my intention to read it "someday." Years later, here I am a book blogger and into my e-mail box comes an offer of a review copy for Jed Rubenfeld's new book, The Death Instinct. Why do I say yes? Not just because the premise sounds good, though it does. I say yes because I have the author's other book on my wish list, as if having a book on my wish list is as good a testament to my enjoyment of an authors's work as actually having read a book by them, just like I occasionally buy books on the grounds of having other unread books by the same author on my shelf at home, and "of course, I'll love that author, right?" This may perhaps be why I have such a freakish amount of unread books. Maybe. It's definitely the reason that I recently enjoyed my first taste of Jed Rubenfeld's historical mysteries.

It's a beautiful day in September 1920 when old friends Detective Jimmy Littlemore of the New York Police Department and Dr. Stratham Younger reunite in Madison Square. Their purpose for meeting again is a girl who left a cryptic note and a tooth for Younger's friend Colette, a French radiochemist who studied under Marie Curie. At the same time, a terrible thing is about to happen on Wall Street. Just as the bells ring noon and hundreds of financial district employees swarm onto the street for their lunch breaks, a horse-drawn wagon turned bomb explodes through Wall Street killing and injuring hundreds of people. Soon, Younger, Littlemore, and Colette are wrapped up in a far-reaching web of mystery that will find all three dodging death in the solving.

The Death Instinct is jam packed full of interrelated mysteries and rife with rich historical detail. In Rubenfeld's hands we are transported from Prohibition era New York where vets returning from the war struggle to find jobs to a Washington D.C. where modern-day politics have already taken shape even though the city seems incomplete, to ravaged post-war Vienna where Sigmund Freud is still learning new lessions about psychoanalysis in the aftermath of the conflict. Impressive are the variety of storylines Rubenfeld successfully manages to weave into his story, with a mystery or two per main character.

Rubenfeld's characters aren't so lovable as they are downright admirable. Littlemore's integrity is steadfast and his amazing feats of deductive reasoning downright sherlockian as he navigates the backward politics of both Washington and New York in pursuit of the truth about the Wall Street bombing and its implications for the U.S. Treasury and U.S. banks. Dr. Younger's courage and heroism follow him from his career at Harvard to the battlefield and to Europe again in pursuit of Colette and her unfinished business. He might have a short fuse and have a history as a bit of a lady's man, but Rubenfeld makes his Younger's heart of gold shine through. In Colette, Rubenfeld marries strength and determination with a stunning naivete to create a character who is determined to defeat her past before it can catch up with her.

Rubenfeld covers a lot of ground in The Death Instinct between the historical scene setting, the fleshing out of his main characters, his employing of real historical figures, and the many mysteries both current to the time period of the book and left over from each character's recent past. My one complaint, then, is that sometimes it seems as if Rubenfeld is tackling too much and all the moving parts occasionally get in the way of the story itself. While the historical detail and Rubenfeld's successful efforts to render historical figures with accuracy create an incredible sense of that moment in history, sometimes the detail and the tangents get in the way of what would be a pageturner of a mystery.

Overall, though, I found The Death Instinct to be an ambitious romp through the post-World War I world. Readers will be torn between wanting to savor all the history Rubenfeld has thoroughly re-created and wanting to rush to the end to discover the solutions to The Death Instinct's many intriguing mysteries.

(Many thanks to Lydia at Riverhead Books for providing me with a copy for review.)


  1. My mind works in much the same way when it comes to books! LOL

    I love that period of time, so this sounds like a book I might enjoy.

  2. Great review! This is the first blogger review I've read and I'm excited to get to this now! And I know what you mean because I'm the same. I had to get his new book because his old one was on my TBR and also because his wife is Amy Chua and I just read her book so now I have this feeling like I know him and need to read his books, LOL!

  3. Kathy - Glad I'm not the only one that thinks this way about books!

    Jenny - Oh wow, had no idea the "Tiger Mother" lady was Rubenfeld's wife. Interesting!