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The Death Instinct: A Novel [Paperback]

Jed Rubenfeld
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 3 2012

From the international bestselling author-"a sprawling and ambitious literary mystery" (The Seattle Times).

From a true and shocking event-the bombing of lower Manhattan in September 1920-Jed Rubenfeld weaves a twisting and thrilling work of fiction as a physician, a female radiochemist, and a police official come to believe that the inexplicable attack is only part of a larger plan. It's a conspiracy that takes them from Paris to Prague, from the Vienna home of Sigmund Freud to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., and ultimately to the depths of our most savage human instincts where there lies the shocking truth behind that fateful day.


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Review

"A deadly terrorist attack rocks downtown Manhattan in September...1920. Rubenfeld's gripping novel revolves around the real-life Wall Street bombing and will have you enthralled from page 1."
-Entertainment Weekly Must List

""Brilliantly concocted and more than just a little eerie. The fictional and actual events surrounding the 1920 bombing are as relevant today as they were nearly a century ago."
-USA TODAY

"This novel is great ... Jed Rubenfeld's tremendous follow-up to his 2006 novel, The Interpretation of Murder, bustles with kidnapping, knife throwing, gun fighting, poisoning, bank robbery, corruption. The Death Instinct is that rare combo platter: a blast to read - you'll be counting how few pages you have left with dread, and you'll do this before you're halfway done - and hefty enough to stay with you. There's a steady beat of intrigue and confusion and explanations you wouldn't have guessed."
-The New York Times

"Intelligent, absorbing and provocative."
-The Seattle Times

"Rubenfeld's debut, The Interpretation of Murder (2006), proved his skillful use of historical detail to create a compelling tale of psychological suspense. He's only gotten better."
-Library Journal (starred review)

"Jed Rubenfeld delivers a soul-searching narrative with complex and memorable characters. Not only is The Death Instinct a suspenseful story that pulls readers into its political and scientific intrigue, it is also a provocative meditation on the psychological and emotional ripple effects of war and terrorism."
-Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow

"In The Death Instinct, Jed Rubenfeld masterfully weaves a sweeping story that moves from New York City to Paris to Vienna and back, illuminating with shocking and harrowing clarity the aftershock effects of the Great War on an entire generation. Anyone with a taste for mystery, political intrigue, and love in desperate circumstances will devour this enthralling novel."
-Katherine Howe, author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

"The Death Instinct is a terrifically smart, tumbling roller coaster of a novel, full of mysterious twists and turns, murders, conspiracies, dreams of revenge, and ultimately a very human redemption. Beginning with one of the great unsolved crimes in American history?the 1920 bombing of Wall Street?author Jed Rubenfeld takes the reader on a fast-forward journey through the politics and police work, science and psychoanalysis of the of the early nineteenth century. The characters are so well realized, the conspiracies so wonderfully twisted, and the rendering of time and place so well done that readers will find the story hard to put down?and harder to forget"
-Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

"A well-crafted story, skillfully told, with more twists than a pig's tail, and a lot more entertaining."
-Anne Perry, author of the Thomas Pitt and William Monk novels

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Jed Rubenfeld is the author of the international bestseller The Interpretation of Murder. He is a professor at Yale University Law School and is one of the country’s foremost experts on constitutional law. He wrote his undergraduate thesis at Princeton University on Sigmund Freud. He lives in Connecticut with his family.

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars good read, but not great Feb. 10 2011
By Luanne Ollivier #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I was intrigued by the description of Jed Rubenfeld's latest book The Death Instinct:

"On Sept.16 1920, a horse-drawn wagon carrying 100 pounds of dynamite and a quarter-tone of cast-iron slugs exploded in front of the Morgan Bank and the New York Stock Exchange - in the very heart of New York's Financial district. More than 400 people were killed or injured. It was the deadliest bombing in the nation's 150-year history - and was the first terrorist attack on American soil. To this day, the reason for the bombing - and its perpetrators- remain a mystery. In The Death Instinct, Jed Rubenfeld offers the thrilling story of what happened on that day."

My first thought was to wonder if this event truly happened or if it was a great fictional idea. Well, it really happened. Jed Rubenfeld has taken numerous factual historical events and combined them with his idea of what may have happened. Many significant historical figures are also 'brought to life' including Madame Curie, Sigmund Freud, and prominent politicos of the time.

The Death Instinct features the two protagonists from Rubenfeld's first novel - The Interpretation of Murder - (I hadn't read this one) - Dr Stratham Younger and NYPD Captain James Littlemore. I was initially enthusiastic about this pair - especially Littlemore- his powers of deductive observation reminded me of Holmes. As the story continued though, I felt I never really engaged with the two of them. We are privy to some of what drives them and some personal moments, but these subplots felt extraneous. I felt as though they were only the vehicle to get to the next piece of the plot.

And there were many, many parts to the plot. A few too many perhaps.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The death Instinct May 20 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Agreat historic fiction Novel focussing on a liitle known bomb attack in New York City in the early 1900's.a well written story!!.
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  54 reviews
52 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent, rip-roaring adventure Sept. 29 2010
By Keris Nine - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Although it makes use of a little-known real-life incident of terrorism on American soil - an explosion on Wall Street on Sept 16th 1920 - and follows through on all the political implications with meticulous consideration for the historical period, at heart Jed Rubenfeld's follow-up to The Interpretation of Murder is a huge, engaging, ripping yarn. It's well-written, carefully researched and intelligently put across, but the emphasis is definitely on the adventure and the romance of the period.

And it just happens to be a highly interesting period in American history. Post-First World War, where many Americans have lost their lives in the trenches during the final stages of the Great War, with Prohibition in force and the Depression on the horizon, to say nothing of the conditions being set for the next World War, The Death Instinct convincingly depicts the state of the world of anarchists and nascent terrorism being used as an effective and sometimes legitimate means of causing serious political upheaval.

Technology too has advanced, as has the understanding of human psychology, and both are integrated into the fabric of the times, particularly in consideration of notions of extreme violence, death and killing, all of which have new implications in the post-war generation, as well as being having implications (and an obvious parallel in 9/11) for the present day and the current place of America in the new world order. All of this is superbly brought into the story, without unnecessary lecturing or over-emphasis, blending wonderfully and imaginatively into the events surrounding the bombing of Wall Street.

And what a cracking adventure that turns out to be, again involving NYPD detective James Littleman, with war veteran Stratham Younger and a French woman he has met on the front, Collette Rousseau - a woman with her own mysterious motivations that take her and her silent younger brother Luc on a relentless journey from America to the Vienna of Sigmund Freud. The novel takes its historical setting seriously, but crucially, it doesn't take itself seriously, allowing all kinds of thrilling adventures and heroics in a fast-moving tale involving the FBI, European anarchists and many other secret agencies and interested parties. There's never a dull moment in The Death Instinct, but there's also plenty here to consider from a historical as well as a modern perspective.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Irradiating Jan. 20 2011
By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In Jed Rubenfeld's sexy, moody, Hitchcockian-cum-Freudian-cum-Jungian literary novel, The Interpretation of Murder, Dr. Stratham Younger narrates a story within the framework of a fictional journal, focusing on his experiences with Drs. Jung and Freud on their revolutionary visit to the United States in 1909. Rubenfeld braided historical fact and fiction in this Manhattan corkscrew murder mystery, centering on Freud's pioneering "talking therapy" and penning some biting dialogue between the three psychoanalysts. Younger's skepticism and attraction to Freud's theories enhanced the mesmerizing story of his attempt to cure a damaged, neurotic, and mute woman. The novel was peopled with a sprawling cast of doctors and louche politicians, drawing the reader into a lush, dissecting mixture of cerebral scrutiny and emotional desire.

Rubenfeld's second and very ambitious novel also weaves fact and fiction, with extensive scope, while adopting some of the motifs and themes from his debut work. This time the author is tacitly paralleling events in the novel to the economic depression of contemporary times, as well as the 9/11 tragedies.

The year is now 1920, the eve of the roaring twenties, women's suffrage, and the transition from Wilson to Harding. Nobel Prize winner (twice) Madame Curie is about to tour the United States to raise funds for her research on radium. Radium is already being used in industry to paint luminous watch dials, poisoning the working women at a factory in Manhattan. Many factory workers are out of work altogether. Prohibition starts and gives rise to speakeasies, Babe Ruth has been traded to the Yankees (1919), and Freud has advanced his theory of human drives in his essay, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," which expounds on the theory of the death instinct. The Mexican Revolution is officially over, but tensions are not.

The Treaty of Versailles had severed many of Germany's provinces from its territories (1919). J.P. Morgan & Company is the titanic leader of finance. Moreover, a billion dollars in gold is being transferred from the old Sub-Treasury to the adjacent Assay Office via overhead bridge. The author incorporates all these historical events, (and more) into a multi-faceted, sometimes brilliant, not quite numinous, but intriguing and educating story.

Stratham Younger, now a veteran of the Great War and an ex-psychiatrist and ex-husband, is standing on Wall Street when a bomb explodes, killing and maiming many civilians. It was at that time the biggest terrorist attack ever executed on American soil. Unsolved to this day, there is insubstantial conjecture that Italian anarchists were behind it. This leaves it wide open for Rubenfeld to create a capital, confabulated truth from historical, anecdotal, documented, and apocryphal background and a florid imagination. He does it superbly, with an expansive cast that includes authentic politicians and businessmen, the FBI and Treasury kingpins, as well as fictional characters. It also alludes, by comparison, that a proper criminal investigation was never conducted for 9/11.

(Fictional) Detective Littlemore, of the New York Police Department and Younger's best friend (present in Rubenfeld's first novel), comes on board to help him try to solve the case. Accompanying Younger during the explosion are Littlemore, and an enigmatic and beautiful French scientist and student of Madame Curie, Colette Rousseau. Her relationship with Younger has a fiery chemistry with lots of obstacles. And, using a motif from his former novel, we are introduced to another mute, this time Colette's young brother, Luc.

Rubenfeld straddles the investigation into the Wall Street attack with the story of Younger's relationship with Colette and Luc via a well-paced balancing act. Freud's presence will be included to help unravel the origin of Luc's muteness and try to cure it. Someone(s) is after Colette, it seems, and she is very close to not escaping dangerous villains. She is on a serious mission to explore the medical benefits of radium and raise money for Madame Curie's research, as well as find employment as a scientist again. Prior to WW1, she was at the Sorbonne. And--love story? We have a fetching love story, too.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but with a bit of a caveat. Rubenfeld pulls off this byzantine plot handily, but with some sacrifice of character and some crowd-pleasing tidiness where I would have liked it messy. (I liked the messier first novel.) Younger, who is no longer the narrator in this omniscient perspective, comes across as a White Knight and brooding, taciturn hottie. That was quite a switch from his younger and more self-effacing and uncertain days. The war and maturation may have had an effect, certainly, but he was too predictable here.

Jimmy Littlemore was also a caped crusader of sorts, a committed family man with flawless scruples. No equivocations to his character, as he always took the moral high ground. The villains and white hats were often too clearly delineated, except where Rubenfeld decided to bait and switch. There were more obvious contrivances at work in this novel, which lent a more mainstream adjustment. And there were some hokey types used to drive the narrative action and plot tension.

The language occasionally felt too modern and anachronistic, speaking too closely in the verse of today. The author generally pulled back before going too far with it, but it did peal at times. For example,

"Germany hates us because we beat them. England and France hate us because we saved them. Russia hates us because we're capitalist. The rest of the world hates us because we're imperialist."

Finally, the ambiguities were conspicuously ambiguous and not sufficiently nettling or beguiling. Rubenfeld did most of the work for us, although it was impressive work. It was a dazzling ride through most of the story--a little boggy in the middle, but fine and tight at the end, and worth the investment. I'd like to see Rubenfled aim his concept just a little bit smaller the next time, furthering story lines about psychiatry--his forte--and give us some main characters with a bit more incertitude and mystique.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hold the phone, I didn't think it was so bad March 17 2011
By Rett01 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Some people liked it, but "The Death Instinct" by Jed Rubenfeld sure got trashed by a lot of reviewers, with one and two-star reviews being handed out like rotten tomatoes tossed on a compost pile.

I'm still trying to figure out what the deal is. What is it about the book that so peeved so many reviewers? I wasn't disappointed at all. I'm among those lesser numbers who enjoyed it.

I do admit I thought I would be reading something quiet different than what the book turned out to be. And I still think the title doesn't do much to cue readers to what the book is all about. Maybe it's just that readers weren't expecting sly humor and the overall feel of a 50s detective story. Maybe it's the off-putting and deadly serious title.

I had expected to read a mystery full of intrigue and atmosphere, with dark characters walking the dark, foggy, cobblestone streets of 1920s New York. Something like Caleb Carr's "The Alienist." Something to keep me guessing and engaged.

What I got was something that gave me all that and also kept me smiling with satisfaction. What I got also was a fast-paced, smirky, quirky police romp more along the lines of "Thirty-Nine Steps" (The 1915 John Buchan adventure novel or 1935 Hitchcock movie adaptation).

The two main characters, pals Dr. Stratham Younger, just back from the Great War, and New York copper then Special Agent James (Jimmy) Littlemore are smartasses. At times, one or both made me think of William Powell in the "The Thin Man" or Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Collette Rousseau, a beautiful French chemist who happens to be a protégé of Marie Curie, and Rousseau's young brother Luc, who was traumatized enough by the war to be made mute, round out the principal players.

The 1920 Wall Street bombing, an actual event that killed and injured 400, propels the fast-paced action and sends our characters back and forth across the Atlantic from New York and Washington to Paris, Vienna and other European locales where travel, usually bumpy, is by car, motorcycle, train and aeroplane.

Historical and political figures Curie and Sigmund Freud among them, play into the story, which is to figure out who blew up Wall Street and why.

Some of the time I felt I was reading something inspired by Damon Runyon. The books has lesser characters named Spanky, Stanky and a redheaded woman called Two-Heads who actually has what appears to be a second, smallish face sprouting grotesquely out of one side of her neck, which meant she looked pretty much okay from the other side.

There's a lot of Runyonesque banter in "Death Instinct," and maybe I'm just a sucker for glib talk and quick retorts but I really enjoyed deadpan dialogue along the lines of, "So how's it feel to be a special agent, Special Agent Littlemore?" asked Fall, taking a seat behind his desk."Must feel pretty special."

(And as a sidelight and just in case you've ever wondered, the book provides the definitive answer to why the common blowfly was put on this earth and the value the buzzing, metallic-colored pest brings to the world. The answer becomes a plot point with life-and-death significance.)

This is a thick book but a fast read. It's interesting history and intriguing storytelling. There is a heaping pile of clues to be dealt with. The plot is a tangle of threads that needs to be unraveled. Rubenfeld is very good at getting everything sorted out and put away in a manner that's as plausible as it is pleasing to read.
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Huge disappointment!! March 1 2011
By NILS BLATZ - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A Brooklyn Bridge spanning the Hudson!! serves as a symbol of the carelessness of this writing. Nothing is worse than a mystery that is improbable at best and absurd at worst. Our hero dives through a closed glass window, nary a bruise, ending up only "spitting paint and wood chips" (played by Bruce Willis?) He follows a radioactive trail through Manhattan using a primitive Geiger counter. Terrible physics; terrible writing.
After some rave reviews, this book is a huge disappointment indeed. I want my money back! N. Blatz
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dead on arrival March 23 2011
By Daniel L Edelen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I've reviewed many books on Amazon, but I rarely attempt to share thoughts on a book I could not finish. _The Death Instinct_ will be one of those rare exceptions.

Re-imagining historical events and real-life characters within those events is all the rage in contemporary fiction. Some books succeed (Glen David Gold's _Carter Beats the Devil_) while other fail miserably (Matthew Pearl's _The Last Dickens_).

Sadly, _The Death Instinct_ falls into that latter category.

Rubenfeld begins his novel in the midst of a real-life anarchist bombing of Wall Street in 1920 and the plot meanders onward from there. The characters, both historical and fictional, are. The events happen. Pages go by. Something, something, blah, blah, blah...

The problem with many novels today is a failure to bring a sense of mood, immersion, and magic to the storyline. What goes missing is the wonder that draws in readers. It's one reason why adults are flocking to YA titles.

The essence of a novel is certainly there in _The Death Instinct_, but while the raw materials exist, nothing comes together to produce a living, breathing experience. It's the difference between seeing a waxworks Elvis in Madam Tussaud's and watching the real item performing on stage in 1969.

"Leaden," "wooden," and a host of other negative "-ens" describe this book. Nothing grabs, nothing enlivens. After 80 pages, I finally realized that the novel would never get better or more involving. The whole endeavor was simply DOA. I put the book aside and didn't think anything of doing so. I wasn't engaged and never would be. And that almost never happens in my reading experience.

I don't like to give books one star, because writing a book is difficult work. I think author Rubenfeld has all the elements of a tremendous novel percolating in _The Death Instinct_. Problem is, a better author needed to write it.
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