Book Review, Historical Fiction

I think I’ve mentioned before the Dollar Tree, the local dollar store, has bins of $1 books every summer. I rummaged through the bin to find potential summer reads and The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld was one of those lucky books that found its way out of the bin and into my purchases. It was a hefty tome, weighing in at over 400 pages, a work of historical fiction that could have benefited from further editing and refinement. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the author’s other works.

The date is September 16, 1920, and the first terrorist bombing in American history hits…New York City. Yes, you read that correctly. September 11th wasn’t the first terrorist attack on United States soil. On September 16, 1920, a huge bomb was detonated on Wall Street near the stock exchange and J. P. Morgan’s bank. Many died, many more were wounded, and the bombing was never solved.  Historians believe it was the work of anarchists, but no one group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, and the “day that America will never forget” is now a day forgotten by nearly all Americans.

Jed Rubenfield uses this historical event to weave a tale around two interesting characters: Littlemore, a New York City police detective, and Younger, a battle-weary physician who still bears the mental scars of World War I. Added to the plot is Colette, a beautiful Frenchwoman whom Younger loves, and her younger brother, Luc, who stopped speaking after their parents and grandmother were murdered by the Germans when their town in France was invaded.

The bombing is the hinge upon which the plot turns, but there are many subplots.  Colette asks Younger’s help to find treatment for her brother, and the three journey to Vienna to consult with Sigmund Freud, who eventually cures Luc. Colette is obsessed with finding a German named Hans Gruber, who she says is her fiance, but who we find out is anything but a fiance. There’s Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium, a crooked and psychopathic factory owner, three strange Italian women following Colette around, kidnapping attempts, immanent war with Mexico…

If you’re feeling lost reading my summary above, it’s not your imagination. I tended to get lost in the plot myself. The author had too many subplots and intrigues going on, and he ended up summarizing events in huge chunks to get to the “good stuff” and move the plot along.

I loved the Younger-Colette theme and wished Rubenfield had made that the subject of one book, then used the Wall Street Bombing as another book entirely. It would have made the entire book faster-paced and more interesting.

Given all of these limitations, however, I did enjoy the book.  The characters were exceptionally well-defined and interesting, defying stereotypes found often in historical fiction. For that alone, I’d recommend the book.

I’m also a sucker for books set in old New York City.  I love New York City, and grew up in its shadow as well as worked in it for 10 years, and it’s in my blood. Imagining horses and carriages, old Model T Fords, and men in top hats strolling along Wall Street was pure pleasure for me.

3 1/2 stars out of 5, with the extra half a star for the fun characters.

I purchased my copy at Dollar Tree, but if you click the link above, it will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase your copy. I do make a tiny commission on the sale but it does not affect your overall price. Thank you.


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