Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld: a gripping tale of intrigue & derring-do

September 16, 1920: under a blue September sky, a quarter ton of explosives is detonated in a deadly attack on New York's Wall Street. Witnessing the blast are war veteran Stratham Younger, James Littlemore of the NYPD, and beautiful French radiochemist Colette Rousseau. A series of inexplicable attacks on Colette, a secret buried in her past, and a mysterious trail of evidence lead Younger, Littlemore and Rousseau on a thrilling journey - from Paris to Prague, from the Vienna home of Dr Sigmund Freud to Washington, DC, and ultimately to the hidden depths of our most savage instincts. As Younger and Littlemore's investigations come together, the two uncover the shocking truth about the bombing - a truth that threatens to shake their world to its foundations.

After trudging my way through a fair few less than stellar books recently, it's a great relief to be back in the hands of master storyteller, Jed Rubenfeld. This is a truly gripping thriller which successfully combines excellent and sometimes poetic writing with the thrills and spills of the storyline. I loved it. The two male characters, Younger and Littlemore, are simply excellent and spark off each other very well indeed. I cared about both of them very much. On the other hand, it took me a while to warm to Colette - perhaps because her actions in the beginning sometimes seem very strange and it's only much later on in the book that we realise what's actually driving her and what her real mission is. I'd also say that Rubenfeld isn't quite as spot-on with female characters as he is with male ones, but that's a minor quibble here.

Other aspects of this novel I really appreciated was the domestic relationship between Littlemore and his wife - there was one moment where I held my breath and dreaded the thought that Littlemore was going to be allowed to slip into a pointless cliche moment when he was working away from home for a while, but he acts true to himself (phew!) and the pointless cliche is dodged. Thank you, Mr Rubenfeld, and yes, I should have trusted you a little more - you've not let me down yet.  There's also a lovely scene between Mr and Mrs Littlemore when he is faced with a terrible choice between money which would very much help his family, and his own personal honour. Kudos to Mrs Littlemore here for opting without any hesitation at all for the personal honour choice. This was a lovely marital scene which felt very real indeed.

Rübenfeld also plays teasingly with cliche when it comes to Colette's apparent relationship with the German officer she is trying to locate, but the scene when Younger pursues her out of love and discovers the real truth of the matter is excellently and breathtakingly done. It turned the whole book round on its head and I loved it. I always enjoy being so cleverly fooled by a writer - it's a real skill.

And, once again, as in Rubenfeld's earlier and also excellent novel, The Interpretation of Murder, we have the presence of Sigmund Freud who is trying to help Collette's brother Luc. Freud has some great and very witty scenes and I very much appreciated them. That said, I do wonder if the Freud factor is perhaps becoming something of a deus ex machina in this author's work, and for the next novel I could probably live without it.

Finally, there's also a great deal of political intrigue going on, which is very clever indeed - but I did tend to lose track every now and again - then again my particular focus as a reader is the relationships between the characters and so I wasn't greatly concerned about politics. I was more interested in the people here, who never let me down. My one other quibble is nothing to do with the book itself but its cover - I have to say I'm really rather bored with that back view of the man in a hat walking away into various scenes - it seems to be on all sorts of history and thriller books these days and I wish publishers would lay the pesky scene to rest once and for all!

Anyway, cover rant over. As I expected, the closing chapters of this book are very thrilling indeed, and the ending is deeply satisfying for all. I thoroughly recommend it.

5 stars. Literary thriller perfection.

Anne Brooke Books
The Gathandrian Fantasy Trilogy
Gay Reads UK

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