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Friday, May 6, 2011

BOOK REVIEW : The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld

‘Death Instinct’ uses a real unsolved mystery as its premise and the author manages to convey a plausible solution to a crime taken place almost a century ago.  In doing this, he also takes us through post World War I Europe – a World where people travelled in horse drawn carriages, lived hand to mouth existences, travelled in planes when the trains were unavailable – A world on the cusp of a huge shift to modernity.

On September 16, 1920, a bomb ripped through New York’s Wall Street killing and injuring many, and also shattering the fragile peace of the World just out of a major war.

The story of ‘Death Instinct’ revolves around this bombing and three main characters - War veteran Stratham Younger, James Littlemore of the NYPD and a French radiochemist Collette Rousseau. If Younger has his sights set on gaining Collette’s affection, Collette herself is striving to solve the mystery of her kid brother Luc’s silence and also the whereabouts of her fiancé Hans Greuber. On the other hand, Littlemore has his energies towards solving the mystery of the bombing. The three stories come together in a climax which reveals the truth about many respected and highly placed individuals of the time.

The premise of the story is fascinating as it has a blend of fact and fiction. As the author’s note in the end says, a lot of the characters in the story, names and all, are real. The situations are also real and in that way, the book is a slice of history. The usage of radioactivity in medicine, the advent of air travel, funnily shaped motor vehicle- all form a part of the tale.

For me, the biggest plus about the book was its being set during the times of World War I. Having read a lot of literature featuring the world around and after the Second World War, this different scenario was refreshing. The glimpses into Madame Curie’s life and her struggle to procure radium for curing people of their diseases is aptly documented as one of the defining events of that era. Also interesting was Sigmund Freud’s analysis of human mind which was gaining prominence during that time. It was he who suggested that humans have two instincts, an instinct to survive as well as a Death Instinct.

But on the flip side, the book feels inordinately long. Divided into four parts, once can’t help but wish that there were lesser pages to read. The writing is slow at times, thereby testing the reader’s patience. The portions involving Younger and Rousseau are pleasing to read but the parts with Littlemore at centre stage are a little dull. Also, I personally got a little confused at a number of points in the story because there are too many characters to follow.

To sum up, ‘Death Instinct’ is a book which will be liked by readers who enjoy taking a peek into eras gone by. For the more practical readers, it might appear to be long and laborious journey. For me, it is a 3 out of 5 stars book, an average read!

Book reviewed by Srilaxmi Pai

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