BookPage Whodunit Overflow: Jed Rubenfeld, The Death Instinct

April 28, 2011

Once a month, the Japanese postman trudges up the stairs to my Saitama loft to deliver a box from America. It is one of those “all you can stuff into it” patriotic red-white-and-blue international flat-rate boxes, and it contains a dozen or so of the latest mystery and suspense novels from around the world. It is like a monthly Christmas parcel for me, and I dig into each new package enthusiastically. Of the one hundred or more submissions every month, these are the twelve that Abby, my editor at BookPage, has deemed most worthy of review, and from this group, I will select four for the Whodunit column. Some will be a shoe-in: the Michael Connellys; the T. Jefferson Parkers; the Walter Moselys; the Henning Mankells. Over the course of the year, if possible, I’d like to include some impressive debut novels, a selection from lesser-known favorite authors, and perhaps a bit of exotica from some far-flung location like Iceland or Botswana.  This month, my parcel from America contained an embarrassment of riches, enough great books to fill two months’ worth of columns at least. Case in point: Jed Rubenfeld’s The Death Instinct.

Nowadays, when one thinks of terrorism and New York in the same breath, one remembers the endlessly repeated footage of jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center. What is less remembered by far is the 1920 Wall Street bombing, the most destructive act of terrorism in US history until the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. Some 400 people were killed or injured, and the mystery surrounding the attack remains unsolved to this day.

In The Death Instinct, Jed Rubenfeld deftly spins a tale of treachery and intrigue, with a small group of fictional characters (a cop, a doctor, a researcher and a young mute boy) moving among and interacting with real-life luminaries of the day: President Woodrow Wilson, Marie Curie, and Sigmund Freud, to name but a few. Together and separately, this intrepid group engages in an investigation that will not only suggest culpability in the bombing, but raise compelling questions about psychoanalysis, radioactivity, and Senate-level political chicanery as well.

There are stories within stories here, set on stages ranging from Manhattan to Prague, and a soaring love affair worthy of a Celine Dion theme song.  Author Rubenfeld is well up to the task, offering readers a tautly charged narrative, appealing characters, and a couple of major surprises you will not see coming.

Jed Rubenfeld is, by any measure, a classic overachiever: according to the short bio on the back cover, he is a professor at Yale University Law School, one of the country’s foremost authorities on constitutional law, and the author of the international bestseller The Interpretation of Murder, which, not coincidentally, is the top book on my nightstand, and my next non-work-related read.