Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld
Genre: Historical Mystery/Thriller
Pages: 480
Date of Publication: January 20, 2011
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Source: I received a free review copy as part of a TLC Book Tour.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Description (from the publisher):
Under a clear blue September sky, America's financial center in lower Manhattan became the site of the largest, deadliest terrorist attack in the nation's history. It was September 16, 1920. Four hundred people were killed or injured. The country was appalled by the magnitude and savagery of the incomprehensible attack, which remains unsolved to this day. 
The bomb that devastated Wall Street in 1920 explodes in the opening pages of The Death Instinct, Jed Rubenfeld's provocative and mesmerizing new novel. War veteran Dr. Stratham Younger and his friend Captain James Littlemore of the New York Police Department are caught on Wall Street on the fateful day of the blast. With them is the beautiful Colette Rousseau, a French radiochemist whom Younger meets while fighting in the world war. A series of inexplicable attacks on Rousseau, a secret buried in her past, and a mysterious trail of evidence lead Young, Littlemore, and Rousseau on a thrilling international and psychological journey-from Paris to Prague, from the Vienna home of Dr. Sigmund Freud to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., and ultimately to the hidden depths of our most savage instincts. As the seemingly disjointed pieces of what Younger and Littlemore learn come together, the two uncover the shocking truth behind the bombing. 
Blending fact and fiction in a brilliantly convincing narrative, Jed Rubenfeld has forged a gripping historical mystery about a tragedy that holds eerie parallels to our own time.

This book is based on historical events. There was an actual terrorist attack on Wall Street on September 16, 1920. The blast killed 38 people and injured over one hundred. But how many of us know anything about it? For many of us, it has been overshadowed by more recent events. One of the reasons I find the 1920 Wall Street bombing so interesting is that it was never solved. In The Death Instinct, author Jed Rubenfeld re-imagines the event with a wide cast of characters and an imaginative set of circumstances surrounding the bombing.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the cast of characters. I enjoyed them all, from the fictional main characters, Dr. Stratham Younger and his friend Detective Jimmy Littlemore (whose sharp observations often reminded me of Sherlock Holmes), to the characters based on actual historical figures, like Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, and Senator Albert B. Fall. The interesting way that the characters were thrown into the mix and stirred around kept me amused and interested throughout the book.

The main thing that distracted me while I was reading is that there is a large portion of the book that seems to have nothing to do with the bombing. There are sizable flashbacks to Younger's war experiences and then later travels to Europe for various reasons unrelated to the bombing. While I was interested in what was going on, I couldn't help but wonder why the characters were going so far off-track from the original gripping scene and mystery of the Wall Street bombing, and how (and when) they would get back to it. Eventually things began to reunite with the original storyline, but wondering about it was a little distracting nonetheless.

On the whole, I quite enjoyed this story. The author provides an informative "Author's Note" at the end of the tale to explain what aspects of the story were inspired by true events and which aspects of the story were entirely fictional (as he says, "the action of the book--the perils of its protagonists, the evildoing they uncover--is fiction. The world in which that action takes place is fact."). I liked the historical elements of the story. It was rather fun to see appearances by so many historical figures within it, and the historical settings were intriguing (besides the political machinations of the post World War I years, there were also fantastic flashbacks to World War I and a foray into the radium craze of the early 20th century). I was also pulled in by the mystery and suspense. I was kept guessing throughout, and because so much was going on I didn't really develop any hunches about who was responsible before it was revealed (and even that involved a bit of a twist at the end!). Apparently this is the author's second novel featuring Littlemore, Younger, and Freud (see The Interpretation of Murder), and while their earlier connection is mentioned, this book stands on its own with no problems.

There is a lot to like about this book, especially if you are a fan of historical fiction and suspense. There is plenty of action here to go with some fascinating history.

Related linkage:
Reading Challenges: TwentyEleven Challenge (Hot off the Presses), Historical Fiction Challenge, Mystery & Suspense Challenge


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