A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion: A Novel

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9781451617559: A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion: A Novel

From the acclaimed author of Atticus and Mariette in Ecstasy comes a stylish novel set in the hard-drinking, fast-living New York City of the Jazz Age that follows two lovers in a torrid affair on an arc of murder and sexual self-destruction.

Based on a real case whose lurid details scandalized Americans in 1927 and sold millions of newspapers, acclaimed novelist Ron Hansen’s latest work is a tour de force of erotic tension and looming violence. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Ruth Snyder is a voluptuous, reckless, and altogether irresistible woman who wishes not only to escape her husband but that he die—and the sooner the better. No less miserable in his own tedious marriage is Judd Gray, a dapper corset-and-brassiere salesman who travels the Northeast peddling his wares. He meets Ruth in a Manhattan diner, and soon they are conducting a white-hot affair involving hotel rooms, secret letters, clandestine travels, and above all, Ruth’s increasing insistence that Judd kill her husband. Could he do it? Would he? What follows is a thrilling exposition of a murder plan, a police investigation, the lovers’ attempt to escape prosecution, and a final reckoning for both of them that lays bare the horror and sorrow of what they have done. Dazzlingly well-written and artfully constructed, this impossible-to-put-down story marks the return of an American master known for his elegant and vivid novels that cut cleanly to the essence of the human heart, always and at once mysterious and filled with desire.

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About the Author:

Ron Hansen is the author of ten novels—including The Kid, Mariette in Ecstasy, Desperadoes, and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion—and two short story collections, among them She Loves Me Not. His novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He graduated from Creighton University in Omaha and went on to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop where he studied with John Irving. He is now Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor in Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University in northern California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE
ART EDITOR SLAIN


She woke to a slow thudding on her bedroom door. She was Lorraine Snyder, aged nine. She’d wasted Saturday night with her parents at their friends’ card party and she’d gotten home only after two o’clock Sunday morning. It was now just over five hours later. March 20th, 1927. She fell asleep again, and then she heard a louder thudding and her mother called in a muffled way, “Lora. Lora, it’s me.”

She got up, slumped over to the door, found it mysteriously locked from the hallway, and opened it with a skeleton key that was hanging on a string.

Ruth Snyder was lying on the hallway floor in a short green satin nightgown that was hiked up to her thighs. She’d been softly drumming the door with her head. White clothesline was wrapped many times around her ankles, and her wrists were tied behind her back.

Lorraine screamed, “Mommy! What happened?” She knelt to free the man’s handkerchief that gagged her mother’s mouth, and she heard Ruth say, “Don’t untie me yet. Go over and get Mrs. Mulhauser.”

Harriet Mulhauser was filling an electric coffee percolator from the kitchen tap when she heard the front doorbell ring. The pretty blonde girl from across the street was there on the porch, still in her sailor pajamas and slippers. Wide-eyed and frightened and breathless. “My mother needs you,” she said.

Mrs. Mulhauser found a Snyder house that seemed to have been ransacked, with sofa cushions on the floor, curtains yanked down, and books and silverware strewn. Upstairs she found Mrs. Snyder helplessly lying on the south end of the hallway floor, still tied up. As Harriet knelt to unknot the ropes, Ruth told her in a frantic, disjointed way that the house had been burglarized. She’d gotten whacked on the head by a giant Italian thief and she’d fainted. She had no idea what happened to Albert. Would Harriet check to see if he was all right?

Mrs. Mulhauser looked to the north end of the hallway, where the door was ajar. She felt it improper to go into a bedroom with the husband still in it, and there was something too eerily quiet there. She even thought she smelled something foul. She sent Lorraine to get her husband.

Louis Mulhauser was in his gray wool church-service suit and getting the Sunday New York Times from the front sidewalk when he saw the Snyder girl running to him.

“We need you,” she said. She was crying as she took him by the hand.

The Snyder house had been constructed by the same real estate firm and was just like his. Upstairs, Mrs. Snyder was still on the floor and sagging into the hug of his wife. Yard-lengths of clothesline were at Ruth’s bare feet. Although her face was not wet, she made crying sounds.

“Look in on the mister,” Harriet solemnly said, and turned Louis with a tilt of her head.

Louis went alone into the master bedroom. Clothing was scattered and the contents of upended drawers were heaped on the floor. A jewelry case seemed to have been looted. There was a strong chemical smell and Albert Snyder was in his flannel nightshirt and lying mostly on his chest in the twin bed closest to the door. His head seemed arched back in agony and was turned away from the entrance. His wrists were tied behind him with a white hand towel, and his ankles tied with a silk necktie. A .32-caliber revolver was beside his back; his flipped-open wallet had been flung near a bureau. Mr. Mulhauser sidled around between the twin beds to see a horrible, florid, lifeless face that still seemed to be straining away from a chloroformed blue bandana of the sort that farmers used. Albert’s head had been gashed more than once and his pillowcase was sodden and maroon with his drying blood. Worms of chloroformed cotton plugged his nostrils and a fist of chloroformed cotton bulged from his mouth. And a gold mechanical pencil had been used to twist a tourniquet of picture wire so tight around his neck that it furrowed into the skin.

When Louis Mulhauser exited the bedroom, Ruth Snyder was still lying on the floor and snuggling Lorraine as she petted the girl’s hair. “It’s bad,” he said. “I’ll go call the police.”

“Oh no!” Ruth screamed. “Albert! Darling!” She seemed to want to go to her husband but Lorraine could feel she was holding back and she finally just stayed as she was and squeezed her daughter even closer. The girl had never heard her father called “darling.” He was not the darling kind.

Mr. Mulhauser hurried downstairs to the foyer telephone and found George Colyer, a friendly widower in his late sixties, letting himself in. Colyer’s house was just behind the Snyders’ corner home. Colyer said, “I saw you with the girl and figured something was wrong.”

“Albert’s been killed.”

“Oh my gosh!”

Mr. Mulhauser spoke to the police and then, as Mrs. Mulhauser took Lorraine across the street to the shelter of their home, he and George Colyer lifted up Albert’s lovely wife and helped her into Lorraine’s bedroom, the one farthest from the murder.

A soft rain was falling when the first policemen got to the address and found a cream-yellow, green-trimmed, two-and-a-half-story Dutch Colonial house that faced west on the corner of 222nd Avenue and 93rd Road in Queens Village, New York, about fifteen miles east of midtown Manhattan. The tawny front yard was just six feet deep, a large and still-leafless elm tree stood between the front sidewalk and the curb, and behind the house was a sparrow bath that Albert had helped Lorraine create with a saucepan on a post. The first-floor north wing held a sunroom and what was called a music room because of its player piano, and the south wing contained the dining room and kitchen. Just south of that was a trellis archway woven with wisteria vines and the freestanding one-car garage that Albert had carpentered himself.

Upstairs in the northern master bedroom was the victim, Albert Edward Snyder, a muscular, sandy-haired magazine editor in his midforties, of slightly below-average height and just under two hundred pounds. Because of the chaos in the house and the extreme thoroughness of the killers, the Queens policemen immediately construed the crime as an assassination rather than a break-in that went awry. The policemen told Mrs. Snyder nothing about Mr. Snyder’s condition and noted that she didn’t seem curious about it. Homicide and burglary detectives were summoned and soon the house was filled with scowling men, including journalists, fingerprint experts, and a police photographer with a Graflex camera.

Mrs. Snyder went into the bathroom to cleanse her face with Noxzema, brush her teeth with Ipana, and fix her marcelled and very blonde hair. But she told a policeman she was there because she had a horrific headache. Dr. Harry Hansen, their family physician, was called to treat her, but he could find no skull contusion or swelling so he just gave her some Bayer aspirin and left.

With a handshake, a solemn man introduced himself to Mrs. Snyder as Assistant District Attorney William Gautier. He’d been called to the scene because he lived just a few blocks away. Stiffly offering his condolences for her loss, but not admitting that Albert was dead, he interviewed Ruth for fifteen minutes and found she’d married Albert Snyder in 1915. He was thirteen years older and the art editor of Motor Boating magazine, handling page layouts and a half-dozen freelance illustrators.

“Could there have been a motive other than burglary?” he asked. “Could anyone have been seeking some particular document or article?”

Ruth said she had no idea why the burglars seemed to have searched the house so thoroughly. She wasn’t aware of secret papers or anything Albert could have hidden. Why?

“The house has been turned upside down,” the assistant district attorney said. “It’s like the burglars were rummaging, not stealing. Like they were tossing things to give the appearance of burglary, when in fact murder was their sole intent.”

Ruth felt sure Albert had no enemies, though she recalled that at a card party three weeks earlier he’d accused a stocky guy of stealing his wallet and its seventy-five dollars. The guy was named George Hough. A lot of fun but he could be loutish. About thirty years old. And last night, Ruth told Gautier, again in the home of Milton and Serena Fidgeon on Hollis Court Boulevard, and again at a card party—contract bridge, which she was lousy at—Albert got very drunk and ornery and there was another altercation, and George had told Ruth that he’d “like to kill the Old Crab.” But of course, like she said, there had been a great deal of drinking and he was probably just fuming.

She told Gautier that she and Albert were asleep when she heard a hallway floorboard squeak. She thought it was Lorraine and went out to see if she was okay, but suddenly Ruth’s throat was seized by a giant man who hit her hard over the head. She’d never seen the man before. Looked Italian, with a wide, black mustache. She then heard another man shout something in a language she couldn’t understand, but maybe it was Italian, and she was about to get hit again when she fainted. She recalled nothing else from that time until she recovered consciousness around seven thirty that morning.

No, she wasn’t sure where George Hough lived. She guessed New Jersey since he talked about New Jersey a lot. She thought he mentioned he was staying in the Commercial Hotel in Jamaica that night because there were so few trains that late.

She was asked if she owned things of high value, and she told Gautier there was a jewelry box that ought to contain some rings with precious gems, gold and silver brooches and bracelets, a magnificent pearl necklace, and four-carat diamond earrings. And she’d hung a fox stole and a mink coat in the foyer closet. And she thought Albert generally carried a hundred dollars in his wallet.

“Why is there a handgun in the house?”

“Al got it last year because of that guy who stole radios.”

The so-called Radio Burglar had killed a policeman and had just been executed in Sing Sing. Assistant District Attorney Gautier closed his notebook, again offered his sympathy, and sent detectives to interview Mr. M. C. Fidgeon on Hollis Court Boulevard, to seek out George Hough in Jamaica’s Commercial Hotel, and to find George’s brother, Cecil, who lived, Ruth thought, in Far Rockaway. And then he invited in a gum-chewing stenographer to record Mrs. Snyder’s statement.

Ruth smiled as she told the girl, “I was a stenographer once. At Cosmopolitan magazine.”

Some neighbor ladies hunched at the front porch vestibule peering in, and when a policeman came to shoo them away, he was told a handsome stranger in fine clothes was seen prowling around the Snyder house one night about two weeks earlier, and also there was a feebleminded boy of nineteen who lived with his mother a few blocks away and he’d been caught peeking into first-floor windows. And Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital was just a half mile to the east.

The policeman thanked the ladies for the information and crime reporters ran with that gossip in their initial stories.

Dr. Howard Neal, the Queens County medical examiner, got there within the hour and established that Albert Snyder was indeed dead, probably six hours gone in fact; then he waited for the assistant district attorney to finish with Mrs. Snyder and exit Lorraine’s bedroom before Dr. Neal invited himself in and carefully shut the door.

She was willing to get out of the green satin nightgown for his examination, but Neal told her that wouldn’t be necessary. She seemed to him a healthy, very attractive, voluptuous woman with ice-blue eyes and blonde hair. Her lilting, velvety voice was so fetching that he found himself leaning toward her as she spoke.

She told him she would be thirty-two in one week, on March 27th. She’d invited sixteen friends to a Saturday birthday party. Albert, she said, was forty-four. She said she fainted often and she had a tricky heart. She wondered if she had epilepsy like her late father.

“Worth checking out,” he said. “But I’m only here relative to the crime.”

She claimed again that she’d been almost strangled and hit over the head by a burglar, but like Dr. Hansen, he could find no contusions of the skull, no bruising of the throat, no injury of any kind. She said the attack probably occurred around two thirty in the morning, that she’d then “conked out,” and that she woke up five hours later, gagged and with her wrists and ankles tied with clothesline.

“Had you been drinking?”

She shook her head. “I have a hard time handling alcohol. I get sick.”

“Had you been sexually molested?”

She hesitated, then said, “No.”

“Are you a smoker?”

“No.”

“Was your husband?”

“Cigars sometimes. Why?”

“It helps the police.”

She got a worried look.

“You fainted?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“And were out for five hours?”

She nodded, but uncertainly. And then she smiled with perfect teeth in a perfectly lovely way, as if she’d just noticed how handsome and intriguing and gallant he was. With a softer tone that he crazily thought of as smooth and sweet as butterscotch, Ruth said, “You seem extra curious about that.”

And he found himself wanting to help her out. “Well, it’s unprecedented, Mrs. Snyder,” the medical examiner said. “You faint, you fall down, blood flows into your head again, and you generally wake up within five or ten minutes.”

She had the look of a child learning. “Still, that’s what happened.”

“And then what?”

She said she’d scooted along the floor to get help from Lorraine.

Dr. Neal found no chafing on the skin of the wrists or ankles where the presumably snug clothesline bindings had been. And he was surprised to find that yard-long lengths of quarter-inch rope had been wrapped four times around the ankles as if she were a movie damsel in distress.

“Are there any more questions?” she asked.

And now it was he who was defensive. “Yes,” he said, “but not from me.”

Seeming about to swoon, Ruth said, “I have to lie down now. I’m emotional and exhausted.”

The head of the investigation was New York City Police Commissioner George V. McLaughlin, a hale, hearty, fashionably dressed Irishman of forty, who would soon leave elective office to become a banking executive with the Brooklyn Trust Company. He got upstairs just before noon and peeked into Lorraine’s room to view Mrs. Snyder just as Dr. Neal was leaving.

“She’s a looker, isn’t she?” McLaughlin said, and Dr. Neal seemed embarrassed.

Walking into the master bedroom, the medical examiner showed McLaughlin how a blunt instrument had caused two lacerations above the right ear on Albert Snyder’s head and a laceration on the skull near his cowlick. A hand or hands had caused seven abrasions on his neck as he was choked; he seemed to have been socked in the nose; he was suffocating on chloroform; and common picture wire had been used to strangle him.

“So what actually caused his death?” McLaughlin asked.

“The choice is yours. Either suffocation, strangulation, or even blunt-force trauma. The assailants were thorough.”

“A lot of wasted effort if you just want to kill a guy. And the loaded thirty-two-caliber on the bed. Why would burglars leave a gun behind?” And then McLaughlin looked at the photographer. “You get all your shots?”

“Heading downstairs now.”

McLaughlin waved in the coroner’s men to collect the victim, told the policemen in the room to scour it and make an inventory, and then he followed the photographer do...

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