In 1985, my friend Johnny suffered a tragic loss in a crime that went unsolved until this year. While reporters tell us that justice has finally brought closure, the story endures, and it raises an unsettling question: What compels us toward tales about violence, about murder?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that all artful stories humanize us as surely as they humanize their characters. They allow us to transcend crime-scene voyeurism and courtroom media hype, to bear witness to those who survive, after the book is slid back onto the shelf.
Lust makes people do crazy things — as demonstrated by the almost weekly addition of yet another politician to our national walk of shame. But, bad as the marital infidelities and lewd twitterings of our elected officials may be, there's cold comfort to be found in the fact that none of them have gone completely over the edge. In fact, if I had any pity for Schwarzenegger, Edwards, Weiner and company, I'd recommend that, in their exile, they might want to read Ron Hansen's new novel about the real-life Ruth Snyder murder case, just to see how much worse things can get when the libido goes homicidally haywire.
Hansen's latest is called A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, and its story weds two of his fascinations as a novelist: the strange mutations of desire (which he explored in Mariette in Ecstasy) and the inner life of outlaws, most notably, Jesse James. As its overheated title suggests, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion delves deep into the hormonally saturated psyches of two people driven by desire to commit what was called in 1927 "The Crime of the Century."
In Hansen's version of the tale, Queens housewife and mother Ruth Snyder was a voluptuous Jean Harlow blonde, antsy to escape a flat marriage. On a shopping trip into Manhattan, Ruth meets a traveling lingerie salesman named Judd Gray. Despite his racy job, the married Judd is rather repressed — that is, until Ruth introduces him to the romping delights of sin. For months, they sneak away for trysts in the Waldorf Astoria and to less elegant hotels in places like Buffalo and Scranton along Judd's sales route. But Ruth wants more: She wants hubby Al to do the 23 skidoo, permanently. After taking out extra life insurance on the unsuspecting Al, Ruth makes a number of almost vaudevillian attempts to kill him by gas and poison. Nothing works until the night that Judd garrotes Al with wire. Ruth tells the police that a couple of "giant," "Italian" burglars were the culprits, but that story is as flimsy as the lingerie Judd peddles. Soon, the two are on trial for murder, and the 11 newspapers then in circulation in New York City have a ball relaying all the salacious details about "The Viking Vampire," as they called the Nordic Ruth, and her stooge of a sex-addled boyfriend.
If this all sounds a bit familiar, blame James M. Cain, who mined the Snyder case for both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Given Cain's classic novels, the immortal films noir that were made from them, and the many other books — including Snyder's and Gray's own jailhouse memoirs — that have been written about this quintessential tawdry tabloid crime, the question arises: Do we really need Hansen's novel? I'd vote "Yes" — with qualifications. If I had to put only one creative retelling of the Snyder case in a time capsule, it would be Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity: Barbara Stanwyck defines "femme fatale" in that movie. What A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion contributes to the Snyder canon is, first of all, a deliciously tangible appreciation of how the giddy sexual and commercial spirit of the Roaring '20s were linked. Hansen delights in festooning his novel with all manner of period places and products that somehow heighten the 1920s' devil-may-care social mores: hosiery shops and riotous smorgasbord restaurants, Wrigley chewing gum, Helena Rubinstein lipsticks and Mavis talcum powder. Even more dazzling is Hansen's rendering of Judd's besotted-ness with Ruth: I can't quote the relevant carnal passages, but they sizzle. Even as he knows he's being played, Judd is too weak in the knees to ever attempt the return trip back to wife and family.
Hansen follows the story to its fated conclusion: the 1928 death by electrocution of Judd and Ruth for the murder of her husband. Tabloid photographs of Ruth Snyder, most of them taken during her imprisonment, don't show her to be the "knockout" or "wowzer" she was supposed to be. Hansen's account, however, remedies that by conjuring up Ruth's dark eroticism and the way it whispered to a man that sex was worth any sacrifice.