Attacking Wall Street in 1920

I don’t often include fiction books in my book reviews on this site. But I was drawn to The Death Instinct because its historic fiction is centered around an event on Wall Street. So I thought the book would be interesting for a compliance professional.

A horse-drawn wagon passed through Wall Street’s lunchtime crowds on September 16, 1920. Inside the wagon was 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron slugs to act as shrapnel. The wagon exploded in front the Morgan Bank and the US Treasury building, killed 38 people and seriously injured hundreds.

It was the most destructive terrorist attack on US soil until the Oklahoma City bombing. Jed Rubenfeld draws some analogies between the 1920 attack and the 9-11 attacks. Unlike those attacks, the 1918 attack went unsolved. There were some vague accusations of plots by Italian anarchists, but nobody was ever charged.

Rubenfeld puts together a sweeping storyline to find his explanation for the bombing. He inserts many subplots branching out from the main story line. He also includes several real-life characters, fictionalized for the book. This includes Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Senator Albert Bacon Fall, and former Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo. The main protagonists are Dr. Stratham Younger, Colette Rousseau – a radium scientist, and James Littlemore a detective with the NYPD.

There is a lot going on and I thought the story might go spinning out of control at a few points, but Rubenfeld manages to keep it together.

My biggest quibble is with the title.  When the publisher offered me  copy I almost passed on it. The “Death Instinct” is one of Freud’s theories. He came to the conclusion that humans have not one but two primary instincts: the life-favoring instinct and the death instinct. In other words, humans strive for both tenderness and thrills. Personally, I found the whole Freud sub-plot to be a distraction to the story and the title merely reinforces an aspect that I did not like.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the main characters and the twisting storyline as it jumps from plot-to-plot and character-to-character. There is romance, financial intrigue, and police procedural elements all mixed in.

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