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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

Rubenfeld's The Death Instinct is an historical mystery.  I have delayed so long in reviewing this that I've kind of lost whatever thoughts were on my mind at the time.

From Booklist:  
The destruction of the World Trade Center was not New York’s first terrorist attack. In 1920, a bomb blast on Wall Street sent cars tumbling and bodies flying. Rubenfeld’s novel, opening with the explosion, has the feel of a historical mystery. A cop and his sidekick are on the scene at once. The investigation begins. A witness to the explosion recalls seeing something that didn’t belong but can’t recall it. Thriller under way? Well, not exactly. Suddenly we’re into a 30-page World War I flashback. Then we visit Vienna for tea with Doctor Freud. We learn of Marie Curie’s work with radium. The sidekick has a rocky time with his love life, and we learn all about it. This fat book is heir to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, using the detective format as a chance to wander in the past. Rubenfeld ends with an explanation of the 1920 attack that finds parallels to 9/11. The leads are witty, and the prose is elegant. But readers should prepare to wallow in the book and take it slowly. --Don Crinklaw

Freud was featured in Rubenfeld's first novel (An Interpretation of Murder), which is not surprising as  Freud was the subject of Rubenfeld's undergraduate thesis.  The setting is  New York in both novels, but the time period and characters (with the exception of Freud) are different.

What I liked were the historical tidbits--about the Wall Street bombing, about Freud and his practice, about Marie Curie, and about the careless use of radium. (The individuals and events are worthy of further research, and somewhere, I jotted down questions concerning them.  Too lazy to get up and go find the questions, but they will serve for later online research.)

On the other hand, the characters weren't as interesting as those in An Interpretation of Murder, and the plot failed to engage.  Thin?  I don't know why, but this is what occurs to me in thinking about the book.

I liked An Interpretation of Murder much better (reviewed here).

Adding some other opinions:  Man of la Books Philobiblos, Mocking Hill Cottage,

Fiction.  Mystery/Historical Fiction.  2011.  464 pages.


  1. Great review. I really enjoyed this book (despite the thin plot). I somewhat identified with Stratham Younger. My thoughts are here:

  2. Man of la Book - I think I might have enjoyed it more, if I hadn't read the first one, which I really liked!

  3. Ah! Now I had difficulty with the first one which somehow didn't quite engage, so maybe I'd better give this a miss as well.

  4. Annie - There was a dark component in the first one that was missing in this one. Not that bad things don't happen, but the atmosphere was not as sinister/evil in this one.