The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

Sequel to The interpretation of murder

A couple of years ago I read Jed Rubenfelds historical crime novel from 2006 “The Interpretation of  Murder” a historical crime novel set in New York in the 1920s.

Acts of terrorism and radium

In this book we have moved forward a decade to 1920. Just as in the previous book the author adds true events and real characters to create a possible scenario we can believe in. In the center stands a terrorist act that killed many people in the heart of New York’s business district. Who performed the deed is to this day a mystery. Here’s another true story that Rubenfeld weaves into the action – The radium girls:

Radium was formerly Distressed in self-luminous paints for watches, nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials. In the mid-1920s, a lawsuit was filed by five dying” Radium Girl “dial painters WHO HAD painted radium-based luminous paint on the dials of watches and clocks. The dial painters’ exposure to radium caused serious health effects Which included Sores, anemia, and bone cancer. “(from Wikipedia)

The story begins and ends in New York with a few detours to Europe, as well as flashbacks from the first World War.

Main Characters

The story alternates between two characters. Dr. Younger, who have returned from Europe after World War 1, and Police Commissioner Littlemore who clearly have “inherited” his analytical abilities from Sherlock Holmes. We are also introduced to Colette Rousseau a French woman, who studied and worked for the famous, Marie Curie who develops a rather pretty love story with Younger. Colette also has a younger brother who is mute after the horrors of war.


The Death instinct refers to one of Freud’s theories that man has a death wish that may manifest itself in destructive behavior against him/herself or others. (Very rough and simplified described.) For those who are interested in psychology the conversations between Freud and Younger are of course, very interesting.

Fascinating but still a bit messy

… is a good way to summarize the book. Rubenfeld has done well with putting real events into fiction. It is at times very exciting and interesting and I like that he brings life in to  people like Freud and Marie Curie, but it is a bit jumpy and messy at times. I think that Rubenfeld simply wanted a little too much and have too many threads running simultaneously. Even so, I will not be able to resist the next book by Rubenfeld!

What comes next?

Will the next book played out 10 years later again? in the early 1930s? President Roosevelt was President, the peniciline was invented and the Empire State Building was built. what could Rubenfeld do with those events?


  1. Sounds fascinating. I’ll have to add this to the reading list. I love the concept of inherited skills of detection with the police commissioner.

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    06 October 2011 18:02