Randy Reviews: The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

Not that the calendar controls things, but had Jed Rubenfeld’s new novel released just a few weeks sooner, I would be positioning it in my best fiction list for 2010. That gives you just a hint as to how much I like this book.

Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld
Calling Dr. Younger …

The Death Instinct begs for comparisons, which might just be the best way to convey its quality to you. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who, incidentally, could have been a character in this

compelling novel) provided a prototype for our detective hero with his classic Holmes/Watson duo. But Rubenfeld manages to combine the skills of those 2 in a single character, Dr. Stratham Younger.

Though not as sprawling, this book compares favorably with Ken Follett’s Book One in the Century Trilogy, Fall of Giants, and is also reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day.

Younger, who drove the plot in Rubenfeld’s earlier book, The Interpretation of Murder, is quickly drawn into the mystery and violence of the brutal bombing of Wall Street in September 1920 – a crime that remains unsolved to this day.

During World War I, Younger served as a medical officer, where his burgeoning skills as a forensic psychiatrist were put to the test. Now back home in New York, he encounters the beautiful Colette, a protege of Madame Curie who provided the doctor with the means to take X-rays at battlefield hospitals in wartime France.

Before we learn why Colette has crossed the Atlantic, the pair narrowly survive the “cart bomb” that killed 38 and seriously wounded 143 people on the streets and in adjacent buildings, including the J.P. Morgan bank.

Who did it? And what was their motive? Was it anarchists? Or is a greater conspiracy afoot?

N.Y. policeman Jimmy Littlemore, who we also met in the first book, pursues a parallel investigation that reveals corruption at the highest levels of power and finance. Younger even winds up consulting, again, with Dr. Sigmund Freud during trip to Vienna.

It is Freud’s lesser-known theory of “the death instinct” that helps to raise this novel above the run-of-the-mill historical detective thriller. Rubenfeld cleverly weaves the known history of the terrorist attack with conjectures that feel real enough to stand in for the best nonfiction.

It’s not hard to imagine Stratham Younger as real and I look forward to joining him again, perhaps with Rubenfeld’s next book.

The author provides a nice recap in the video embedded below.

While it’s still early, The Death Instinct stakes its claim on a top 10 read for 2011 with its cerebral heroes, imaginative premise, and breakneck suspense.


THE DEATH INSTINCT: Freud’s Lesser-known Theory

As Sigmund Freud moved closer to the end of his life, he recognized that his earlier theories regarding the pleasure principle (life instincts), including his well-known theories on sexuality being the driving force in the behavior of humans, could not explain everything.
How to explain our self-destructive tendencies? To the famed psychoanalyst, that death drive, or death instinct, exerted great influence on our behaviors. He believed that our life instincts prevented us from living lives filled with aggression and violence.

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