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Rubenfeld, Jed - 'The Death Instinct'
Hardback: 464 pages (Sep. 2010) Publisher: Headline Review ISBN: 0755343999

Set in New York, Washington and in Europe just after the First World War, this book manages to weave together a set of apparently disparate events into a satisfyingly complete whole, that makes for an engaging and entertaining read. It features James Littlemore, a captain in the New York police force and Stratham Younger, a doctor, both of whom appeared in Rubenfeld's earlier book THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER.

Events begin with a suspected terrorist attack on the Financial District, when a bomb is detonated at 12.01 on the 16th September, outside the Treasury building. Both Younger and Littlemore happen to be there, together with a young female friend of Younger's called Colette, a Frenchwoman whom he met while a surgeon in the Army in France, during the war.

Colette is a 'Curie' girl, dispatched with one of the first X-ray machines into the war zones in France, to X-ray patients, and enable the surgeons to remove bullets and shrapnel from the wounded soldiers. Colette worked with the famous, Nobel prize-winning scientist, Madam Curie, and has come to New York to try to obtain the radioactive metal, radium, for her, accompanied by her younger brother, Luc. Luc no longer speaks, possibly as a result of the atrocities he witnessed during the war, when the Germans killed the rest of Colette's family. The price of radium has become very expensive due to its rarity, and an apparent monopoly on one of its main sources by a character named Brighton. He is using the radium to make watches with fluorescent dials. He employs young women in factories to brush on the radioactive paint onto watch faces, and they lick the brushes, with no knowledge of just how dangerous that could be.

After dealing with the aftermath of the bomb, Littlemore and Younger realise that Colette is no longer with them, and rush back to find her at the hotel, only to discover she, and her young brother, have just been kidnapped. Could this be linked to a message she received earlier, asking for help, and containing a cracked human tooth? With a flash of inspiration, they discover they can track her down using a primitive Geiger counter, as Colette has fooled the kidnappers into stealing her radioactive rocks. They manage to effect a rescue, but one of the kidnappers, Drobac, escapes.

Despite the apparent danger to her life, Colette goes ahead with her planned speech to the Marie Curie Radium Fund, which is attended by Brighton. There she is set upon by a strange red-headed woman, who is then shot by Brighton's manservant Samuels. The stranger ('two-heads') has an odd, large growth on her neck, which Younger later finds out gives an anomalous X-ray image, but is unsure why. Then, Drobac tries to kill Colette again, and is finally captured, after being severely beaten by Younger, in fact so badly beaten that he is almost unrecognisable, and it is Younger who is then arrested, and has to be bailed by Littlemore.

The story then separates into two main strands. Littlemore starts to investigate who is responsible for the bombing, even though the FBI, headed up by a publicity-seeking director, called Flynn, is officially in charge of the investigation. Eventually this leads to him leaving the police force, and becoming a security advisor for the Treasury, partly based in Washington. Meanwhile, Younger agrees, against his best judgement, to go back to Europe with Colette, to search for her lost fiance, partly because once more Colette's life appears to be in danger. As part of the trip they also go back to Vienna to see Freud, who had already investigated Luc's inability to speak during an earlier visit, and has agreed to see him again for further treatment. Younger is in love with Colette, but does not believe his love is reciprocated, as Colette seems so desperate to see her fiance one last time. Gradually we discover the truth behind the bombings at the Treasury, the real story of Colette and Luc's past, and why Colette's life was put in danger from her visit to New York, and her attempts to help raise money to buy radium for Curie. The various stories reveal their connections, and everything is satisfyingly resolved.

The novel includes interesting (if true!) asides that contain much historical detail, the characters are well developed and the author carefully develops each plot line in parallel to drive the story forward. I very much enjoyed this book, more so than THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER and will be looking out for the next instalment featuring Littlemore and Younger.

Michelle Peckham, England
November 2010

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last updated 14/11/2010 11:17