Freud returns in Jed Rubenfeld's Death Instinct

Jed Rubenfeld's period thriller The Interpretation of Murder outsold Harry Potter at one point. Back with the sequel, he talks about crime, war and shell shock.

It might have underperformed in its author's native America, where its publication was overshadowed by hype surrounding the reported size of the advance it commanded. But throughout the rest of the world, Jed Rubenfeld's 2006 debut novel, The Interpretation of Murder, was a phenomenon.

It sold more than a million copies in the UK alone and won Best Read at 2007's Galaxy British Book Awards - an accolade Rubenfeld, whose day job is teaching law as a professor at Yale University, calls "the most gratifying honour I've ever received". (Even so, he jokes, his children remained unimpressed "until the day my book topped that year's Harry Potter on the charts".)

Interpretation, a thrilling murder mystery set in turn-of-the-century New York, was a vivid imagining of Sigmund Freud's only visit to the US, one that led him to denounce its citizens as "savages". Attempting to answer the question of what happened on this trip to agitate Freud so, the book cast the father of psychoanalysis as a Sherlock Holmes figure trying, with the help of his protégé Dr Stratham Younger and rookie detective Jimmy Littlemore, to solve a series of gruesome murders.

The Death Instinct is the follow-up. A sort of sequel, it takes place in 1920, roughly 10 years after Interpretation, and fans of the first book will be relieved to find the old gang back together. (Even Freud makes an appearance, although he is elderly and living in Vienna by this point.) More of a thriller than a murder mystery, The Death Instinct is also more limber and less clotted than its predecessor. It reads as if it must have been fun to write, and has some great set pieces, especially the horrific historical event with which it begins - the bombing of Wall Street in September 1920 by persons still unknown - and a subsequent chase through Manhattan in which Younger has to follow the trail of radiation being emitted by a batch of stolen radium.

Did Rubenfeld have a sequel in mind as he was writing the first book? He insists not."If there was a sequel percolating, I wasn't conscious of it. In fact, when I was asked - as I was repeatedly at the time Interpretation was published - when the sequel would come out, I answered 'never'. Which shows, I guess, that I needed psychoanalysis."

The title makes reference to what Rubenfeld describes as "one of the least-known of Freud's teachings": Before the First World War, he says, Freud thought that man was driven by desire. "After it, he changed his mind and decided death was a drive as well." Freud proposed the "death instinct" - the idea of "an urge in organic life to restore an earlier state of things" - in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle after becoming fascinated by shell-shock (or, as we now call it, post-traumatic stress disorder): specifically, the tendency of the wounded soldiers he treated to re-enact or repeat the events that had traumatised them.

(There's a good example of this behaviour in Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker - Sergeant William James is a sapper who gets such a thrill from defusing bombs that he finally abandons his family to pursue what we know will be his death. Rubenfeld nods enthusiastically: "It's a great movie," he agrees.)

Where does his interest in Freud and psychotherapy come from?

"I've been reading and thinking about and writing about Freud since my days at university," he says. "I don't 'believe' in Freudianism in the sense of agreeing with everything Freud said. In fact, I disagree with many of the tenets he thought were most central to his own thinking - the Oedipus complex, for example. But I do think that Freud was among the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. He changed how we think about ourselves. The idea that we have unconscious fears and desires, for example - we take that for granted. Freud was the first psychologist to make self-deception fundamental and systematic in his account of how people behave: he saw that people constantly tell themselves stories about their motivations that aren't true. This is another compelling piece of Freudianism, one that will continue to have tremendous influence long after psychiatry has turned against other tenets of Freudian thought."

Younger is very different in The Death Instinct: harder and colder after his experiences in the trenches (though he has the compensation of a beautiful woman in tow - a radiologist called Colette). Littlemore, a favourite with book groups, is granted more autonomy this time round - he's packed off to Washington to oversee an investigation that parallels Younger's.

Rubenfeld says he doesn't have a favourite character - he loves both Younger and Littlemore for what they are. "Littlemore is a certain kind of American hero; a kind that appears in movies, especially from an earlier era. He's got some Jimmy Stewart in him - natural, unselfconscious, thoroughly decent and incorruptible, though he would never describe himself that way. Younger is, unfortunately for myself, more like me. There's a darker side to him, at least in this book. He's brooding. He fought in the war, whereas Littlemore didn't. He has aggression that he keeps inside. But he's also a hero in this book, a man of action."

The Death Instinct is very much in thrall to the romance of what Americans call Old Europe. Characters are whisked around Vienna and Paris with giddy aplomb. Does this reflect Rubenfeld's own fascination with the cultural tensions between Europe and the US?

"The book is in part about the First World War, with its savage, meaningless killing of millions of young men," he explains, "so the story couldn't be situated exclusively in New York City; it had to go to Europe. Also, after 1909, the year Interpretation was set in, Freud never returned to America. He reappears in The Death Instinct, so the characters had to go to him in Vienna. But in the end, the scene of The Death Instinct is more America than Europe; more Manhattan and Washington DC.

"America in the first decades of the 20th century fascinates me. The year 1920 is particularly interesting in its parallels to our own times: worldwide economic crisis; terrorism. In fact, I found it simply astonishing to learn that in 1920, only a few blocks from the September 11 attacks, on the same kind of clear September day, a massive terrorist attack had already occurred - the most destructive in US history until the Oklahoma City bombing 75 years later. And to this day, no one is sure who was responsible. Yet most Americans in 2010 don't even know of this bombing, which is interesting in itself."

Rubenfeld's writing method is to work "wherever and whenever I can".

"I'm a professor of law, and that comes first for me: writing about the law, teaching, researching and so on. Writing novels still doesn't feel like a job." He laughs. "If it did, I probably wouldn't be able to do it!"