Jed Rubenfeld explores a little-remembered tragedy in America—the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, which resulted in more than 400 casualties—in his second historical thriller, The Death Instinct.
Why were you so meticulous about the historical detail in The Death Instinct?
People like to learn some history while they're being entertained; it's a kind of multitasking. But when novelists write historical fiction, they have another motivation, too: to teach us about ourselves, to show us something about our inheritance, about where we came from.
What's the trickiest part of historical research?
Getting historical figures like Sigmund Freud right. You can't just learn the facts. To make someone like Freud feel right on the page, you have to learn how he thought, how he spoke, how he didn't speak, how others reacted to him, while avoiding the obvious clichés.
What can you tell us about your protagonist, Dr. Stratham Younger?
Younger's supposed to be dark and sardonic and brooding, like his author. But he's also supposed to be a hero, unlike his author. And he's in love, despite himself. He's essentially a stoic, but like every good stoic, his stoicism is an act.
And what about Younger's sidekick, police captain Jimmy Littlemore?
Littlemore is a type of American hero I grew up admiring—a Jimmy Stewart type, mixed, maybe, with a little Columbo. He knows the world. He understands people. He and Younger are complementary. Younger, although a psychologist by training, really doesn't understand people very well at all. I could imagine the two of them working together for a long time.
What's the significance of your title?
In 1920, at about the same time as the Wall Street bombing in America, Freud announced his discovery of a new fundamental instinct that, he said, lies deep in every one of us. It's an instinct of aggression. A desire to kill, and a desire to die. He called it the "death instinct." If you asked me which idea of Freud's was the most important but least known, I'd say, without hesitation, the death instinct.
Nobody was ever tried for the 1920 bombing. Do you have any theories?
In 1944, after almost a quarter-century-long investigation, the FBI concluded that the bombing "would appear" to have been "the work of Italian anarchists or Italian terrorists." But this was conjecture, and all I could do would be to pile conjecture on top of conjecture.
You're a law professor at Yale, yet there's not much law in your novels. Why not?
I write my novels to get away from my work!