An Unsolved Mystery in Jed Rubenfeld's 'The Death Instinct'

by Dan Barrett

11 May 2011

If you're interested in history and enjoy seeing some of the Western World’s greatest figures brought back to life, you may have fun with The Death Instinct.
cover art

The Death Instinct

Jed Rubenfeld

US: Jan 2011

In September 1920, a bomb exploded on Wall Street. No one had ever launched such a deadly terrorist attack on American soil. In fact, the Wall Street bombing would retain its status as most-deadly-US-terrorist-attack until the Oklahoma City bombing, decades later. And the most fascinating part of this story is that historians cannot offer an adequate explanation for the Wall Street Bombing—to this day.

The Death Instinct is a kind of hypothesis, a rather fantastical way of explaining what might have happened on that brutal September day. Jed Rubenfeld, a Yale Law professor and author of the bestselling novel The Interpretation of Murder, uses four characters to tell a story about America in 1920, and to shed some light on the amazing things that were happening in the world in this turbulent year.

The real-world events Rubenfeld describes are mind-boggling and often gripping. It’s indeed true that people ascribed the 1920 bombing to Italian anarchists, but that no compelling, irrefutable evidence exists for this hypothesis. It’s true, also, that in Europe Dr. Sigmund Freud was unveiling his thoughts on the “death instinct”—the idea that each of us has a will to self-destruction, just as each of us has a will to find love.

Furthermore, Madame Curie, a peripheral character in this novel, did in fact distinguish herself by becoming the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, and the only person (of either gender) to win her Nobels in two different fields of study. And her pet project, radium, was used to decorate watches in America, and dozens of women who did the “decorative radium work” were eventually poisoned to death (as Rubenfeld memorably describes).

Alas, the invented parts of The Death Instinct are not quite as riveting as the ripped-from-the-headlines portions. Rubenfeld introduces us to two men—Littlemore and Younger—who drive the action of the plot. Littlemore is a family man who has a side interest in adventure, and he repeatedly risks his life to investigate the machinations that led to the September bombing.

Meanwhile, Younger, a doctor, assists Littlemore when he can, and investigates the radium crisis in his spare time. Both men have entertaining flirtations—Younger, with a lusty European woman (“Colette”) who carries many secrets; Littlemore, with a sexy D.C. operative, “Mrs. Cross”, based in part on an actual woman who had a fling with President Harding.

On top of all these twists and turns, Rubenfeld tells an intermittently engaging story about Freud. Colette’s younger brother, Luc, has not spoken for years, and so Colette and Younger seek Freud’s help. It’s in Freud’s sessions with Luc and his conversations with Younger that Rubenfeld (who studied Freud’s work years ago) gets to lay out some of the Great Man’s theories. We learn that Luc is mute because of some repressed memories of his father’s behavior in World War I, and we learn about the way subterranean family dynamics are warping and troubling both Luc and his older sister.

Clearly, Rubenfeld has fun when he gets to breathe life into Dr. Freud. At one point, Rubenfeld writes, “‘Everyone wants revenge,’ answered Freud. ‘The problem is that we usually seek it against the wrong person.’” Later, Rubenfeld’s version of Freud declares, “‘In science, my dear, there is no such thing as good or evil. The death instinct is part of our biology.’”

Also, Rubenfeld has the energy and obvious delight of an amateur historian when he has a chance to slip in facts about America’s earlier days:

“…As the United states struck numerous futile compromises between North and South, one such bargain was negotiated in the territory of Columbia. Alexandria, poor and intensely pro-slavery, was retroceded back to the slave state of Virginia, while the trade in human property was abolished everywhere else in the territory. As a result, the capital lost its geometric perfection as well as about a third of its hundred square miles. Meanwhile, the cities of Georgetown and Washington grew to a point where they began to encroach. Accordingly, in the 1870s, Congress repealed the charters of those two municipalities, combining them instead, together with the rest of the territory, into a single District of Columbia.

From that point on, there was, formally speaking, no city of Washington at all. But no one has ever scrupled over that nicety, and Washington continues to be spoken of and believed in by all, just as if it were a real city.”

Nevertheless, when required to evoke emotions and invent plausible, multi-dimensional characters, Rubenfeld does not always deliver the goods. Adolescent boys might enjoy the following passage, but for the rest of us, the cartoonish and implausible quality of the details can become tiresome.

“[The man] turned at the sound of Younger’s voice. It’s unlikely he understood what he saw: a cast-iron half-pipe, dripping with molten gold, one end attached to the furnace, the other end swinging toward him. The pipe struck him square in the forehead. The blow would have been no more than an annoyance if liquid gold, at a temperature of two thousand degrees, had not coursed down his forehead, his nose, his cheeks, his neck. [The man] tried to scream, but what came out was nothing like a human scream: the yellow metal stream had already burned through the flesh of his cheeks and entered his mouth…”

If you are interested in history and enjoy seeing some of the Western World’s greatest figures brought back to life, you may have fun with The Death Instinct. However, you shouldn’t expect Madame Bovary. Rubenfeld has a vast collection of facts and a lively, amiable narrative voice, but his predictable and infrequent insights into personality and the workings of the human mind can leave a reader frustrated, bored, and eager to start a different book.

The Death Instinct


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