DEATH INSTINCT by Jed Rubenfeld

Book Quote:

“In January 1917, Germany telegraphed an encrypted message to the President of Mexico, proposing a joint invasion of the United States. Mexico would regain territories that America had seized from her; Germany would gain the diversion of America’s forces. Great Britain intercepted the telegram, decoded it, and delivered it to Wilson. The United States at last declared war. Before long, America would be sending ten thousand men a day to the killing fields of Europe.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (JAN 21, 2011)

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.

(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 WWI, 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, plugged with homilies that pointedly address contemporary issues. 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.”

Just exchange some countries for others, and we have the voice of today’s proclamations.

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, and more preachy than the first book, but worth the investment. I’d like to see Rubenfeld aim his concept just a little bit smaller the next time, furthering storylines about psychiatry—his forte–and give us some main characters with a bit more incertitude and mystique.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 42 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Hardcover (January 20, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jed Rubenfeld
EXTRAS: Jed Rubenfeld Talks about Death Instinct
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another Historical Mystery set in this time:

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January 21, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Mystery/Suspense, New York City

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