The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

Riverhead Books
Paperback release: January 3, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59448-560-2
Source: review copy
My Goodreads rating: 2/5
Recommend to: historical fiction fans

I came close to throwing in the towel multiple times during the first 180 pages of this book. It just wasn’t grabbing me. I stuck with it to see what the author would do with the tumultuous post-WWI time period. Flash-backs to the Great War also helped keep me reading as I’m draw to WWI.

The novel begins with the September 16, 1920 bombing on Wall Street that killed 38 people and injured 143 others. Captain James Littlemore of the NYPD investigates the bombing with occasional help from his old friend, Harvard-trained physician Stratham Younger and his love interest, French radiochemist and Curie devotee Colette Rousseau. This is Rubenfeld’s second book featuring Littlemore and Younger, the first was The Interpretation of Murder (2006).

Younger and Rousseau met on the fields of WWI where they served as medical personnel. Rousseau’s younger brother, Luc, has not uttered a word since his parents were killed in the war. Is his condition physical or psychological? Rousseau is kidnapped, rescued, and now someone seems bend on killing her. She and Younger find themselves traveling back and forth between New York, Germany, France, and Austria to escape assassins, get help for Luc from Freud, and reconnect with Rousseau’s German soldier, Hans Gruber. Meanwhile, Littlemore deals with thick-headed FBI agents and then learns how to negotiate his way in and around Washington politicians after he accepts a new job as a special agent in the Treasury Department.

Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie are minor characters in this book and I enjoyed the way Rubenfeld used both of their theories and discoveries as part of the sinew and muscle that holds the story together and moves it forward. I’m not drawn to novels that feature historic personages. In my experience such novels tend to make the characters feel too cute & bumbling or too all-knowing. In The Death Instinct Rubenfeld did neither of these things with Freud or Curie, which I admire. He made them seem like believable characters rather than creating caricatures or using them as plot devices.

This novel packs in a lot of action and issues: there’s political intrigue, scientific discoveries, the pros and cons of psychotherapy, cutting edge medical treatments, social unrest, prohibition, abuse of workers, an absent minded capitalist tycoon, classism, sexism, Italian-bashing, antisemitism, rape, white slavery, a gun shoot out, multiple trips across the Atlantic aboard ship, a car and motorcycle chase, and an airplane ride. Although there are many historic tidbits and thriller novel conventions used, none of it came off as overly forced or hokey. There was only one part of a scene that fell flat or seemed completely out of place (when someone talks about the start-up of a literary magazine) and one of the minor female characters seemed cardboard (she actually brought to mind Jessica Rabbit in a suit), but otherwise this is a smooth novel.

Rubenfeld is a skilled writer to pack in as much as he does without the story getting too clunky. While the novel never became a page turner for me, the reading did pick up after those first 180 pages. I’m glad I stuck with it just to see how much he was able to weave into what I thought was a good plot. There are some suspenseful scenes that stick out in my mind. Short ones such as when Rousseau is on top of a building or when she arrives home to find Luc gone, and longer ones such as when Rousseau finally meets up with Hans Gruber and the action that follows, as well as a potential US invasion of Mexico.

The two big things that were lacking for me were well-rounded characters that I cared about and atmosphere. While I enjoyed the characters, I never felt in the thick of it with them. I rarely felt any emotional depth or attachment. As for atmosphere, just adding a little more sensory detail to key scenes could have helped. Hence, the two star rating that I gave it on Goodreads. But this novel is “okay,” to use Goodreads’s word, and while I wouldn’t recommend this novel to a general audience, I do believe historical fiction fans will enjoy it. I never read The Alienist (I tried to and couldn’t get into it), but know the cover of that book well, and from the striking cover similarities, it seems like the publisher is trying to draw that audience to The Death Instinct.

I always like to know a bit about authors after I read their book and upon Googleing Rubenfeld I was surprised to find that he’s the husband of Amy Chua, his fellow Yale Law professor and the author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the memoir which caused quite a stir when it came out last year.

Here’s a video of Rubenfeld talking about the historic bombing at the heart of The Death Instinct. It includes some powerful historic footage.

A bit of a sidebar: The bombing of September 16, 1920 was an actual event where real people were wounded and died, yet the blurb from The New York Times that the publisher chose to put on the top of the front cover calls this book, “A blast to read.” I found this offensive. I’m surprised that the publisher would choose such a blurb and that the NYT reviewer couldn’t resist writing such a tasteless pun. Does anyone else find this offensive?

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