'Guilty Passion' Leads A Housewife To Homicide

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Rob Hansen
A Wild Surge Of Guilty Passion
By Ron Hansen
Hardcover, 272 pages
Scribner Hardcover
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

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.

Ron Hansen is the author of a number of short stories and novels, including Atticus. He teaches at Santa Clara University. i i

hide captionRon Hansen is the author of a number of short stories and novels, including Atticus. He teaches at Santa Clara University.

Charles Barry
Ron Hansen is the author of a number of short stories and novels, including Atticus. He teaches at Santa Clara University.

Ron Hansen is the author of a number of short stories and novels, including Atticus. He teaches at Santa Clara University.

Charles Barry

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.

Excerpt: 'A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion: A Novel'

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen

hide captionA Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion: A Novel
By Ron Hansen
Hardcover, 272 pages
Scribner Hardcover
List Price: $25

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.

From A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion: A Novel by Ron Hansen. Copyright 2011 by Ron Hansen. Excerpted by permission of Scribner.

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