By Jed Rubenfeld, Riverhead Books, $26.95, 480 pages

10The author purports that Sigmund Freud has said that man has two instincts; one is the pleasure principle and the other is the death instinct, an individual’s longing for death.

For those of us that seek out historical fiction, the enjoyment is learning factual information about an era that we may not know much about while at the same getting told a story that weaves together the historical content. The Death Instinct does a great job on the historical side but is a little soft with the fictional content.

The story begins on September 16, 1920 when a wagon full of explosives explodes in front of the J.P. Morgan Bank in New York City. An event that to this day has never been fully resolved. The main characters are an incorruptible New York policeman, Jimmy Littlemore and his friend and amateur detective Dr. Strathum Younger. The third character is Colette Rousseau a charming and beautiful French lass that captures Younger’s heart from the first pages of the book. As Littlemore and Younger work on solving the crime we are treated to the musing of Sigmund Freud, we meet Madam Curie and learn more about the early days of x-ray and the use and misuse of radium and we learn about the horrors and loss of life in the trenches during World War I. We learn about Constitution Day, Woodrow Wilson, the public’s struggles with prohibition, women’s first opportunity to vote in 1920, the gold standard and the original layout of the District of Columbia which was four equal sides of 10 miles each. Throughout the story our heroes’ investigation focuses on Italian anarchists, Bolshevik revolutionaries and eventually some Mexican politicos that are upset with our nation’s saber rattling at the borders.

I would recommend this book to those that like to learn more about this period of time and to be tolerant of a story that seems to lose itself from time to time.

Reviewed by Brian Taylor