“A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion” by Ron Hansen

“A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion” by Ron Hansen (2011) – 256 pages

    Judd whispered, “This is sheer happiness, just being with you”. She took the fleeting opportunity to kiss him, and Judd’s palm cherished his lover’s sensuous hip as they went down to the dining room.

I had never heard of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray until recently, but these two were the perpetrators of what many considered the crime of the twentieth century. Their crime was the basis of two novels by James Cain, ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Postman Always Ring’s Twice’ which were both made into popular movies. Now this couple is the inspiration for ‘A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion’ by Ron Hansen.

Since in this novel the murder occurs in the very first chapter, I can discuss it without giving away the plot. Ruth Snyder was an exceptionally good looking vivacious housewife from suburban New York City who meets successful lingerie salesman Judd Gray, and they quickly fall in love. However both of them are married to someone else, and both have a young child. A year and a half later Ruth’s husband Albert Snyder, the art editor for Motor Boating magazine, is found murdered in his home in what appears at first glance to be a house robbery. However the robbery story quickly falls apart, and both Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray are arrested, tried, and finally executed in an electric chair at Sing Sing prison for the murder. A famous picture of Ruth Snyder strapped into the electric chair was taken.

In order to tell this story well, Ron Hansen needed to recreate the time and place of the murder as well as to capture these two lovers to understand the passion that led them to murder. The murder took place on March 20, 1927. This was the height of the Twenties when business and prosperity were at their peak just before the complete collapse and the Great Depression. Scott Fitzgerald named the Twenties “the Jazz Age”, and noted that it “raced along under its own power served by great filling stations full of money”. Hansen catches the details of the dress, the hair styles, the restaurants, the dances, the cars, the party life, the ubiquitous alcohol drinking despite prohibition. Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray were by no means the only ones doing afternoon trysts.

After the end of the novel in the Acknowledgments, Ron Hansen states, “This is a work of fiction based on fact, and though I hew closely to the history of the events, the majority of the narrative is, of course, invented.”              

 While awaiting trial and in prison, Ruth Snyder received 168 proposals for marriage.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Ooooh, this sounds like my kind of book. New York. The 1920s. A murder. A magazine editor. What’s not to like? Also, I’ve read a couple of Hansen’s books before and very much liked them. Thanks for the review. I will definitely hunt this one out.

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  2. Hi Kimbofo,
    Yes, you see the story of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray has it all, sex and violence and a magazine editor and the electric chair. That is probalby why so many books and movies have been based on it. ‘Double Indemnity’ is probably my favorite movie of all time.
    I might or might not have read one of Hansen’s previous novels. He carries this one off well.

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