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Book Cover Image: The Death Instinct by Jed RubenfeldTitle: The Death Instinct

Author: Jed Rubenfeld

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “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.”

Thoughts: The Death Instinct is really a tale of two stories. One is the historical backdrop, the real historical figures and events that feature prominently into the action. The other is the fictional aspect of the story. Unfortunately, this dichotomy does not blend well at all. A reader can discern the factual versus the fictional pieces quite easily. This is due in large part because the factual portion is easier to read and flows quite naturally, whereas the fiction portions labor to be quirky, suspenseful and interesting but in reality bog down the overall story.

The characters themselves are one-dimensional and cliched. There is no substance or emotion behind any of the characters’ actions, and the reader is left to question each character’s motivating factors. While Mr. Rubenfeld tried to place his characters into historical events, the connections he draws between the fictional and real people are tenuous at best, requiring too much of a stretch of a reader’s imagination to be truly plausible. In addition, the dialogue leaves something to be desired. It reads like a transcript of a stereotypical 1920s gangster film. This forcing together of all of the various elements creates a novel that is disjointed and clunky.

The Death Instinct truly shines when it focuses on the history of the New York bombing. Mr. Rubenfeld’s research is apparent in his meticulous attention to detail, from the sounds on the streets to the headgear worn by the police. Life in the early 1920s leaps off the page in a way that is simply entrancing. Compared to his care and attention to history, his fictional characters are flat and insipid. The reader becomes easily distracted and finds it difficult to maintain interest in the story. The Death Instinct is enjoyable but not a novel that will ever be called a “page-turner,” which is unfortunate because it is a topic that has such great potential.

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