four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
By: 
Ron Hansen
user_rating: 
0

A-WildSurgeGuiltyRon Hansen, critically acclaimed author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), brings his historical fiction prowess to a salacious murder that scandalized the American public and provided the inspiration for the classic James N. Cain noir novel Double Indemnity.

The Story: Ruth Snyder's marriage to her much older husband, Albert, is disintegrating. She finds solace in an unlikely person: Judd Gray, an unassuming Sunday school teacher and corset salesman. Ruth and Judd murder Albert--clumsily--and detectives quickly realize that Ruth is the mastermind behind this brutal crime. The media seizes on the affair, since the murder was both scandalous and captivatingly incompetent, with one prominent journalist dubbing it "The Dumbbell Murder." Hansen follows the young couple from the initial stages of their "plot," including Snyder's foolish purchase of a life insurance policy on her husband before the murder, to the murder itself and the evidence-filled crime scene, and onward through the pair's trial. All the while, the American media remains in a frenzy about the case, creating the first "Crime of the Century" of the 20th century.
Scribner. 256 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781451617559

San Jose Mercury News HHHHJ
"[Hansen] gets into the minds of Ruth and Judd with keen specificity. Engaging, seductive and often wickedly funny, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion combines the clear gaze of historical fiction with the vivid attractions of noir." Georgia Rowe

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion is a gripping, entertaining novel. You can feel Hansen's fascination with this story--and his delight at the wealth of material ... Hansen has done prodigious research on the period details in the book ... which adds credibility but also color to the landscape." Susan Salter Reynolds

NY Times Book Review HHHH
"Hansen's skills are such that we're soon caught up in the lovers' ‘death spiral' of obsession. ... Toward the end, the arrested killers' loss of physical freedom seems to translate into authorial reticence and constraint. ... It's a tribute to the novel's propulsive readability and emotional force that this anticlimactic distancing, which might have undermined a lesser work, leaves this one intact." Steven Heighton

San Francisco Chronicle HHHH
"Splendidly written, his novel is this summer's not-at-all-guilty pleasure ... readers, in all likelihood, will acknowledge that the ride to hell and back has been stimulating." Glenn C. Altschuler

Library Journal HHHJ
"A fictionalized version of a sensational murder and subsequent execution in 1920s New York, the book overflows, at times too blatantly, with period detail ... the author has nevertheless created an entertaining and sexy crime novel for adult readers. Although not technically a mystery, this book should also be popular with fans of hard-boiled crime novels." John R. Cecil

Cleveland Plain Dealer HHH
"That Ruth has grown to hate him is no surprise, but her decision to kill him is somewhat bewildering in its lack of solemnity. ... That's the flaw in this novel. Ruth rarely becomes more than a fascinating and willful siren in Hansen's handling of her." Kristin Ohlson

Critical Summary

Critics praised the initial portions of A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, citing Hansen's ability to re-create the complex characters of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. Hansen also received raves for his adept ability to portray the seedy details of Snyder and Gray's relationship without seeming too sensationalistic. Reviewers remained divided on Hansen's use of period detail: some felt the details are too distracting; others felt that the attention to detail "colors" the setting. Almost all critics noted, however, that Hansen changes his tone and approach in the final stages of the novel, relying on court transcripts to propel the narrative. Even though the critics embraced the fictional layers Hansen builds into his story to this point, they missed his more personal approach to the characters. Still, a minor complaint for this well-told noir.

Cited by the Critics

The ‘Double Indemnity Murder' Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray and New York's Crime of the Century | Landis MacKellar (2006): For those who would prefer a nonfiction account of the murder, this somewhat scholarly take offers the facts, psychological profiles, and no imagined dialogue. The New York Times Book Review called it "a comprehensive yet streamlined nonfiction account, well researched and humane, that's as gripping as a thriller."