The Death Instinct, by Jed Rubenfeld

It’s been a while since I read the The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld  – a gripping page turner that managed to combine psychoanalysis, murder and an atmospheric turn of the century setting. And The Death Instinct didn’t disappoint; it’s a great page turner, even if the 9/11 references are a little heavy handed.

(I have to confess: I get turned off by books with titles like this. It is so generic, it’s almost meaningless. Death Instinct? Interpretation of a Murder? Anatomy of a Murder…? They all sound the same. What next – Anatomy of an Instinct? Death Murder…?)


This book surpasses his debut, with a labyrinthine plot that moves from New York, to Vienna, to Germany and back, taking in Radium, Freud, terrorism, oil, warfare and banking. If that sounds like a summary of the headlines of any given newspaper recently (perhaps radium and Freud aside) then it’s because Rubenfeld has drawn some bold parallels with today’s current societal problems – sometimes to the detriment of the story.

Stratham Younger, the protagonist from the first book, has returned from the Great War a changed man, disillusioned with psychoanalysis, quiet, introspective and haunted by the horrors of warfare. Littlemore, his cohort in the previous book, is now Captain of the NYPD and they investigate seemingly disparate incidents to uncover the Big Plot.

After an act of terrorism on 16th September, outside the JP Morgan building in New York, the pair gradually delve in to the shady world of politics, banking, oil and American foreign policy. It’s an interesting yarn, with a complicated series of sub plots, that all lead to a heated finale.

Rubenfeld is a solid writer and the plot rarely loses pace, but first and foremost he is an historian. This is evident in the first five pages of nearly every chapter, where historical detail is documented in a tone that is slightly out of kilter with the rest of the narrative. These sections serve to highlight the ‘real-world’ aspect of the story, and help root it in some semblance of reality, but for the most part they aren’t strictly necessary and just distract from the action.

The constant references to 9/11 are of course inevitable. For the first 50 pages, the parallel is interesting, but as the book progresses, it becomes a little tiresome; bankers can be corrupt,; politicians are often devious and terrorism is a constant threat to liberty. This perhaps wouldn’t have been a problem had there been a more interesting message than; ‘See? Nothing changes.’ But there is little development of this parallel, so it remains slightly frustrating.

The other aspect that niggles me was the inclusion of psychoanalysis. I can’t help but wonder whether the presence of Freud is relevant to the story, or Rubenfeld has used him again for the sake of continuity. I can’t decide if it’s a mild diversion or totally pointless. While his sections are interesting, they do very little for the plot.

That said, the 1920’s era is very well imagined and the complex story has a satisfying denouement. It’s a fun read and well worth a visit- go on, give it a go…


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