A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, by Ron Hansen
Here’s one thing I’ve learned from several years of reading, analyzing (and enjoying) historical fiction: while it should lean heavily on the story’s real-life history, the story will read best when it adheres to one of the structures of good fiction. Hansen has always been amazingly good at creating vivid storylines (witness his books adapted to other creative media: Atticus and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as cinema, and Mariette in Ecstasy as staged drama). Thus the writing of this underappreciated novelist has made me one of his most ardent fans. But I’m beginning to feel that over the last two books he’s losing his mojo. A look at Guilty Passion will give you an idea why.
This real life drama comes from the intersection of the lives of corset salesman Henry Judd Gray and married hottie, Ruth Brown Snyder. Judd and Ruth meet casually through a mutual friend, and soon sexy sparks are flying. But their liaison is more than sexual heat – Ruth is grooming Judd to be the murderer of her abusive, drunken husband, Albert.
Both Ruth and Judd are stuck in loveless marriages, and while Ruth has ample reason to escape her marriage to Albert, Judd’s is simply common, boring, and sexless.
In Hansen’s hands, Judd and Ruth achieve a level of eroticism and emotional refuge perhaps uncommon in the 1920s. As it becomes clear that Ruth is moving Judd to at least assist in killing Albert (she admits to several failed attempts at killing her husband), Judd becomes the passively moral force in their murder plans, while Ruth becomes the amoral schemer. Here, in the middle section of the book is where Hansen’s novelistic skills shine. This is where fiction can take the reader in a new, intimate direction, as Hansen did in Hitler’s Niece, while adhering to the spirit of historical fact.
What fails this reader are the book's first few pages, and the last three chapters, in which the author resorts to paraphrasing research information on their intersected lives and the resulting crime. All right, it is non-fiction in fictive clothing, so what’s the problem? Primarily the ending, where Hansen resorts to a distancing journalistic style. There are many unanswered questions concerning Ruth and Judd’s romantic entanglement, questions that can chase such intimacy in different novelistic directions. Here, the primary one offered is: How did Judd and Ruth really feel about one another? i.e. had the murder gone unsolved, would their sexual connection have resulted in some enduring form of love?
The value of superimposing fiction over real life is to give a deeply intimate view of historical events and characters, a view that historical fact rarely offers. In Guilty Passion, Hansen takes us to the answer’s precipice, but he doesn’t allow us to peer over it.
Incidentally, if you want a camera-eye look at Ruth and Judd, GOOGLE them – their photos exist.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars