The Death Instinct, By Jed Rubenfeld

Terror tale that's worth investigating
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The Independent Culture

Should novels featuring real-life characters be judged on the accuracy of what we know of the originals? Or is it possible to read a book featuring Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie and be prepared to accept the unlikely avenues down which an author takes these figures? Can imagination and audacity trump historical facts?

If all this seems a high-flown response to a thriller such as The Death Instinct, it's one that Jed Rubenfeld should be used to by now. The father of psychoanalysis was a central character in his The Interpretation of Murder, and those who live by the sword of literary ventriloquism must expect to die by it. British novelist Frank Tallis similarly employs Freud in a series of detective novels, accompanied by a young follower who acts as the novel's hero. Inn the Rubenfeld vs Tallis face-off, neither is yet a clear winner.

Stratham Younger appears again here as a youthful student of Freud, but the older man's role this time is more in the nature of a cameo. Younger is a friend of Captain James Littlemore of the NYPD, and the duo find themselves caught up in a real-life terrorist atrocity. In 1916, New York experienced a shocking terror attack when a bomb exploded on Wall Street. The carnage was massive: 38 people died and 143 were seriously wounded.

Rubenfeld, having arranged for his protagonists to be present when the bomb explodes, plunges them into a truly labyrinthine plot involving a young student radiologist, Collette Rousseau, who has studied with Marie Curie. Younger and Rousseau first encountered each other, and fell in love, in wartime France. But other historical figures are stirred into this rich stew, including malign giants of the US oil industry, the head of the FBI and various compromised government figures. The author moves vigorously between Younger's experiences on the bloody field of war to the corridors of power in Washington.

The facts behind the bomb blast have remained a mystery; while Italian anarchists were blamed, the crime is still unsolved. This is fertile territory for a novelist of Rubenfeld's ambition, and the bravura with which he keeps his multiple plot strands on the move is more than compensation for the sometimes penny-plain prose. Any reservations – and even some tendentious reaching for parallels with 9/11 – are swept aside by the spacious and picaresque adventure.