I like a good historical mystery now and then, and Jed Rubenfeld’s THE DEATH INSTINCT certainly fits into that category. It’s Rubenfeld’s second novel featuring Dr. Stratham Younger and New York police detective Jimmy Littlemore, following THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER, which I haven’t read. This one works fine as a stand-alone, though.
Set in the fall of 1920, this novel begins with the real-life detonation of a massive bomb on Wall Street, right in front of the J.P. Morgan Bank and the U.S. Treasury office, on September 16. Younger, Littlemore, and Colette Rousseau, Younger’s sort-of girlfriend from France who is a protégé of Marie Curie, happen to be on the scene and help out in the aftermath of the explosion, at least until Colette is kidnapped by some sinister and mysterious foreigners, and from there we’re off on a breakneck adventure with half a dozen different plotlines, political intrigue, flashbacks to World War I, racing around Europe, and some wildly over-the-top action scenes that would be right at home in a pulp. For example, an early scene finds Littlemore at the wheel of a roadster pulling a Barney Oldfield while Younger rides on the running board tracking some bad guy by the use of a homemade radiation detector. I have no idea if Rubenfeld ever read any Doc Savage novels, but even if he didn’t, he’s sure channeling Lester Dent in this scene. Later on, there are confrontations with villains that are as lurid as anything in one of the Weird Menace pulps. All of this is mixed in with one of the most complex plots I recall ever encountering, as well as plenty of history and psychology (Sigmund Freud is one of the supporting characters).
My dislike of long books is well-documented, but this is one of the rare long books that easily held my interest all the way through. Rubenfeld really keeps things perking along by cutting back and forth between the various storylines, and his characters are consistently interesting. I especially liked Jimmy Littlemore, who is both smart and persistent in his investigations. Rubenfeld also does a good job of mixing history and fiction, and an informative afterword explains what’s real and what isn’t. The identity of the Wall Street Bombers was never discovered, at least officially, but this book comes up with a strongly plausible explanation for the crime.
The only thing I didn’t like about THE DEATH INSTINCT is that Rubenfeld gets a little heavy-handed in some of the dialogue meant to compare these historical events to more contemporary events. Such things strike me as a little too cute, but I have a very low tolerance for political ax-grinding in the fiction I read. There’s not enough of it here to distract much from the compelling story and characters, though. I enjoyed THE DEATH INSTINCT a great deal and highly recommend it.