The Death Instinct
Jed Rubenfeld
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Buy *The Death Instinct* by Jed Rubenfeld online

The Death Instinct
Jed Rubenfeld
464 pages
January 2011
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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With a landscape that tells us much about early twentieth-century America, this meticulously researched novel is a veritable jigsaw puzzle of detectives, corrupt politicians, eccentric scientists and criminals. Although I was put off by Rubenfeld’s leaden writing, the author largely builds a compelling story, offering a unique perspective on the Wall Street bombing that occurred on September 16, 1920, in New York City's Financial District.

Although the bombing was never solved, investigators noted that the timing and location were too precise for the explosion to have been an accident. The detectives assigned to the case focused on radical groups opposed to the U.S. government and capitalism - and, given the target, they suspected Bolsheviks, anarchists, communists or socialists. Spinning his epic tale, Rubenfield mixes fictional and real characters, all given the complicated task of solving the mystery.

A horse-drawn wagon comes to halt while the bells of Trinity Church boom and a blue-black cloud of iron and smoke - ominous and pulsing - fills the plaza. Witnessing the devastation firsthand are Dr. Stratham Younger, Detective Littlemore of the New York Police Department, and Colette Rousseau, a scientist specializing in radium research. The devastation unfolds: iron shrapnel and fragments are flung in all directions, and vehicles are suddenly airborne. Younger and Colette are blown onto their backs by the concussive pressure from the blast.

Littlemore is first at the scene and sees a mysterious woman standing over the carnage, her head wrapped in a kerchief, surveying the crowd with a keen, composed gaze. Her presence creates a series of connections, vital for the various stakeholders as they come together in a serpentine path of lies and betrayals. When Collette is kidnapped, Younger finds himself caught in the middle, enlisted as Collete’s savior yet well aware that the connection with her feels more and more precious as time passes.

The plot moves from Paris to Vienna and on to the power brokers of Washington, where a series of recalcitrant politicians and bankers present an element of international intrigue to the tale. The author adds background by describing Younger’s experiences as a field doctor in the Great War where he meets the radiant Collette. Younger must appease Collette’s memories of falling in love with a devout, ailing soldier in Paris to whom she had given her heart.

In Vienna Collette and Younger are priviledged to meet the famous Sigmund Freud who promises to treat Collette's younger mute brother Luc while back in America, Littlemore gets closer and closer to the perpetrator, turning his attention to the United States Treasury and to the wealthy investment houses of Wall Street. Digging deeper, Littlemore is convinced the terror attack was deliberately motivated and perhaps related to postwar social unrest manifested in slowly fermenting labor struggles.

Rubenfeld’s writing is eloquent, but the story plods along in a bizarre mix of espionage and macabre horror. I really wanted this book to be more exciting and less byzantine as the author works to expose the dangers of radium and the bloody nature of war and terror. The actual perpetrators of the deed are mostly shrouded in ambiguity, ultimately sheathed in a convoluted mix of complicity, vice and corruption.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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