It was Sigmund Freud who coined the phrase “the death instinct”. In fact, it became the foundation of one of his major theories – that people have two competing desires that drive them – one towards death and self destruction, the other towards life and love.
Freud rounded out this thesis in 1920. The world was stumbling out of the war to end all wars. No doubt he was enormously influenced by the horrors that had engulfed Europe.
Someone else who was nearly engulfed by the war was Marie Curie. She had already won two Nobel prizes by the time war broke out. Her discoveries of x-rays and radium were applied up and down the trench lines of northern France as doctors attempted to stitch up bodies all but blown apart. In the years following, her discoveries were seized upon by industrialists churning out consumer goods to fuel the boom, put together by largely disenfranchised, largely unprotected female labour force.
I am not sure if there is any record of a connection between Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie, arguably two of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, but in Jed Rubenstein’s fertile imagination, they are certainly drawn together by a web of action, intrigue and romance. You have to wonder about Rubenstein’s mind for in The Death Instinct because I don’t remember a cleverer weaving together of disparate historical facts into a single historical fiction.
Think about it. The bombing of Wall Street on September 16, 1920 (the single most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until the Oklahoma bombing of 1995), the transit of almost a billion dollars of US gold from one location to another, a near invasion of Mexico by the US, the power vacuum in the presidency after Wilson’s stroke and the scramble and jockeying for power that followed in the 1920 election, the rise of the US industrialists. And then there is Mme Curie and Dr Freud. In the middle of all of this are the gorgeous French scientist Colette and the dashing American doctor Stratham (who had his first encounter with Freud in The Interpretation of Murder, set ten years previously).
In The Death Instinct, Rubenfeld has written a big-hearted adventure, with enough mystery, love interest, action and thrills to keep any reader happy. I have to admit, I do have a teeny tiny crush on Stratham but my rep tells me he feels the same about Colette. The mark of a well pitched book if you ask me!