Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review : The Death Instinct

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld. Riverhead Books, 2011. (Published January 20)

[Source: Penguin]

In The Death Instinct, Jed Rubenfeld builds a engaging and convincing story around the September 16, 1920 bombing of Wall Street. It was the largest terrorist attack to ever occur on American soil and is unsolved to this day. Rubenfeld's main characters, WWI veteran Dr. Stratham Younger, NYPD Captain James Littlemore, and French scientist Collette Rousseau, happen to be there at the time of the bombing. Their efforts to both solve the bombing and a series of attacks on Collette lead them all on a roller coaster ride on both sides of the Atlantic.

I originally put The Death Instinct on my Top Ten 2011 Books I’m Anticipating list because the description reminded me of Erik Larson’s work. In my opinion, Larson is a master of narrative non-fiction. Though Rubenfeld is writing fiction, I thought the integration of history sounded similar. I was not disappointed. Rubenfeld expertly weaves fact and fiction to create a gripping yet educational tale. A number of historical characters appear in The Death Instinct including Sigmund Freud and several political figures. Interspersed in the narrative are interludes of history, which give you valuable background on the era.

One of the early history interludes really stuck with me. Early on, Rubenfeld explains the series of terrorist actions that took place in the U.S. during 1919 and 1920. The rhetoric on terrorism since September 11th has, as I see it, always suggested that terrorism is a new threat to which America must adapt. Reading Rubenfeld, it occurred to me that terrorists are not as new of a foe as we might think (or be led to think). For the better part of a century, the U.S. has been the target of terrorist acts. Though their frequency has increased and the technology used has evolved, terrorism is not new. The parallels between then and now are striking and somewhat frightening.

But I digress.

I was immediately drawn in by Rubenfeld's writing style. His integration of historical fact is done in a way that creates a compelling story rather than boring history PSAs. I learned things about World War I, U.S.-Mexico relations, radium, and Sigmund Freud. For instance, did you know that Freud came up with the death instinct? That’s right, it’s not just a clever book title. Rubenfeld’s characters are complex and charming. I laughed out loud at Littlemore on several occasions. There are twists and turns to make the story exciting, but they are also logical and believable. Some you may see coming, some may shock you. In the end, I was very glad to have read The Death Instinct. I've added Rubenfeld's previous novel, The Interpretation of Murder, to my TBR list. I highly recommend you add The Death Instinct to yours.

Amazon affiliate link:
The Death Instinct
The Interpretation of Murder


  1. See, it's interesting - I didn't like reading Erik Larson's book(s) but I really enjoyed this one. Maybe it was that little shift that fiction gives it that made it a lot more enjoyable, who knows. I totally agree with you on this story though - fantastic piece of work and something I loved despite it being out of my comfort zone.

  2. This book is on my very short to-read list as part of a book tour - glad to hear it's good.