The Death Instinct

The Wall Street bombing which took place on September 16, 1920 was—until 2001—the most deadly terrorist attack ever to strike New York City. In the immediate vicinity of the blast were the buildings of J. P. Morgan and Co., the world's most powerful financial institution; the U.S. Assay Office, which housed $900 million in gold; and the U.S. Sub-Treasury, while around the corner was the New York Stock Exchange. To complicate matters still further, a leaflet found nearby demanded the freeing of "political prisoners." Hundreds of policemen and FBI agents tried to identify the culprits and their motives, with Anarchists, Bolsheviks, Communists, Russians, and Italians all suspected in turn. No one claimed responsibility; to this day the case has never been officially solved.


The September 16th attack kick-starts Jed Rubenfeld's intelligent, fast-paced historical thriller The Death Instinct. Among the witnesses of the explosion are war surgeon Dr. Stratham Younger, his friend Captain James Littlemore of the NYPD, and Colette Rousseau, a radiochemist whom Younger met in France during the First World War, and who is in America trying to raise funds for her mentor, Marie Curie. Littlemore takes a professional interest in the Wall Street atrocity, finding himself caught between political, civic, and business forces. Each has secrets to hide and agendas to advance. Younger and Rousseau, meanwhile, are plunged into a separate series of crises and adventures: before the first sixty pages have elapsed there has been—in addition to the Wall Street bombing—a mysterious letter, a kidnapping, two murders, and the appearance of a hideously deformed woman who seems to be trying to send a message to Colette.


A lengthy flashback explaining how and when Younger and Rousseau first met slows things down momentarily. Once this is out of the way, however, Rubenfeld begins to develop the various plot strands that have been set in motion. His writing, too, becomes more assured, as when he describes a number of women who have daubed their eyes with luminous make-up, "creating paired circles of phosphorescence that turned the dark portal of the church into a kind of grotto from which nocturnal birds or beasts seemed to peer out." The teasing possibility of  romance between Stratham and Colette is handled deftly, and the period color of post-War Paris, Vienna, and Prague provides a vivid backdrop, while various historical figures—including Sigmund Freud, Madame Curie, Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, and FBI head "Big" Bill Flynn—weave in and out of the plot. Freud is given the largest role, and makes perhaps the most disturbing comment in the novel, when he suggests to Younger that the perpetrators of the bombing are already dead. "You think they killed themselves in the blast—deliberately," Younger says slowly, to which Freud replies "Maybe they did, maybe they didn't . . . . Maybe they'll give others the idea."


It's not the only time that Rubenfeld draws parallels between the events of 1920 and the present day. Indeed, he's at his best with the aftermath of the Wall Street explosion, blending fact and fiction seamlessly to create a gripping mystery. He is equally successful with the engaging, observant, tenacious, and dryly humorous Jimmy Littlemore. "Somebody has to" is his reply, when he's accused of playing by the rules. His dogged pursuit of the truth behind the events of September 16th, and his refusal to compromise, lends The Death Instinct its heart. A suggestion to the author: a series featuring the continuing adventures of Jimmy Littlemore. Perhaps he could investigate the disappearance of Judge Crater . . . .


Barbara Roden is a writer, editor, publisher, and reviewer who lives in British Columbia.

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