Book review: 'The Death Instinct' by Jed Rubenfeld

By Seth Stern
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 9:57 PM

On Sept. 16, 1920, a bomb hidden inside a horse-drawn carriage exploded in the heart of Manhattan's financial district, killing dozens of people. That long-forgotten bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack in New York's history until Sept. 11, 2001, when it became a renewed subject of curiosity.

Jed Rubenfeld has chosen the 1920 crime as the jumping-off point for his second historical thriller, "The Death Instinct." The result is another engaging whodunit that meticulously reconstructs early-20th-century New York.

Rubenfeld brings back the stars of his earlier bestseller, "The Interpretation of Murder": Jimmy Littlemore, still the cleanest cop in New York; and Dr. Stratham Younger, older and a bit coarsened after tending to the wounded in Europe during World War I. Together they must solve the bombing while fighting off a ghoulish band of kidnappers and powerful figures intent on blaming everything on foreign-born anarchists and starting a war with Mexico. (Another star of the first book, Sigmund Freud, is reduced to a supporting role here, but readers might wonder what he would think of the tough-love parenting advocated by Rubenfeld's wife and fellow Yale law professor, Amy Chua, in her new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.")

The action moves from New York and Washington to Paris and Vienna and back in time to the trenches of World War I, where Younger met his latest beguiling love interest, Colette Rousseau. Once again, Younger must save a bright, beautiful damsel in distress who can't seem to make up her mind whether to love him.

The story is well told, but the dialogue occasionally reads like a dime-store detective novel. Washington readers in particular might roll their eyes at how the capital and its players are portrayed, such as one corny exchange in which Littlemore politely rejects the advances of a seductive congressional aide:

" 'There are rules about this kind of thing.'

" 'Rules?' She slipped off her shoes, one at a time, and looked up at him, putting her hands on his chest. 'This is Washington, Agent Littlemore. The rules don't apply here.' "

Rubenfeld's attempt to draw parallels between the September 1920 and 2001 bombings can feel somewhat heavy-handed, too. As we approach the 10th anniversary, it's hard not to conclude that Rubenfeld had the more recent attack in mind: "When it happened," Littlemore says, "it was like nothing would ever be the same. The country was frozen. Life was going to be different forever." Stern is co-author of "Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion."

The Death instinct

By Jed Rubenfeld

Riverhead. 464 pp. $26.95

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