A WILD SURGE OF GUILTY PASSION
By Ron Hansen
Scribner, 272 pp., $25
When Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, killed Ruth’s husband in Queens in 1927, the murder was a tabloid sensation. New York City had a dozen daily newspapers then, and the couple’s arrest and trial were front-page news for weeks. Readers thrilled to stories about Ruth, described as “a headturner,” “blonde fiend,” and “Viking vampire” (her parents were Swedes), and so alluring that she received 164 marriage proposals while imprisoned. The papers tagged Judd, a nattily dressed traveling lingerie salesman, as Ruth’s willing stooge, “an inert, scare-drunk fellow” - in the end, “just a sap.”
James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity’’ was inspired by the Snyder-Gray story, which sets a high bar for Ron Hansen’s new novel based on the case. Hansen sticks close to the real-life melodrama, using not only real names and places but also a journalistic, sometimes detached tone. Although he sensitively renders both lovers’ pain - Ruth’s yearning to be understood and adored, Judd’s increasingly drunken self-recrimination for his sins - Hansen’s mode here is essentially comic. As killers, the two did so many things wrong (though Ruth was smart enough to wear a red nightgown “presuming there would be bloodshed”) that reading about their crime feels like watching a series of silent film pratfalls. While Cain’s book thrums with intensity, Hansen’s noir feels almost effervescent - more wit than grit - yet it lacks none of its predecessor’s steaminess. Highly entertaining, this is a sexy, exuberant read.
NOM DE PLUME: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms
By Carmela Ciuraru
Harper, 366 pp., $24.99
Some writers use pseudonyms to protect their families, others to protect their careers, still others simply to be published. In what she calls “a selective chronicle of pseudonymity” Carmela Ciuraru briefly profiles 16 cases of authorial renaming. The best of these are fascinating, lively, and fun - you can’t do much better than to read about George Sand, born Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, who adopted a swaggering male persona to go along with the name. The Frenchwoman, Ciuraru writes, “was never shaken by what she viewed as the mutability of the self. Given the choice between conforming to prevailing customs and doing as she wished, she simply alternated between the two.”
Fashionable in the Victorian era, not all pseudonyms were intended to be taken seriously (Thackeray’s included “Michael Angelo Titmarsh, George Savage Fitz-Boodle, and Charles James Yellowplush”). They are rare in today’s celebrity and media culture, with readers who “clamor to interact, online and in person, with their favorite writers.” But Ciuraru’s case studies include writers who had little choice, in particular the women who adopted male names in order to be taken seriously by publishers. Ciuraru writes that all of her pseudonymous writers “longed to escape the burdens of selfhood,” which seems apt in the case of George Orwell and Lewis Carroll, perhaps, but off the mark for others. Charlotte Brontë and her sisters hid their female names to overcome a rigidly gendered society. Astoundingly self-confident, Brontë compiled a catalog of her own literary work at the age of 14 (at which point she listed 22 small volumes), and only began using the ambiguous nom de plume Currer Bell after a male poet responded to her fan letter by admonishing her that “[l]iterature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” Not escaping the self, then: more like protecting her work from a world that wasn’t yet ready for a great author with a woman’s name.
DAUGHTERS OF THE REVOLUTION
By Carolyn Cooke
Knopf, 192 pp., $24.95
The title doesn’t refer to the venerable, if controversial, group Daughters of the American Revolution; instead, the women at this book’s core live through later revolutions - sexual, political - that came two centuries after the United States declared independence. Carolyn Cooke’s first novel begins at a fading prep school on the eve of admitting female students, then winds its way, episodically and elliptically, through the unfolding lives of three women in the school’s orbit. At the center of it all is Goddard Byrd, known as God, the aging, imperious, self-deluded headmaster. God, “who had trouble hearing female voices,” can be pretty awful, yet Cooke bestows upon him the same sympathy she grants all her characters. Leaving a tryst, his self-satisfaction isn’t just shallow: “[H]e feels deeply at home in this world. It is divided and antagonistic, filled with human hatreds bred by race, religion and economics; he loves it anyway.” God sees the school’s move toward co-education in clichés of that period’s war: “It had become necessary to destroy the school in order to save it.”
Both God’s vulnerabilities and his prejudices feel very real, and while not laudable, Cooke renders them as familiar. She’s equally loving toward Mei-Mei and EV, a mother and daughter on God’s periphery, both of them wounded yet magnificent. “Daughters of the Revolution’’ is deeply humane, often very funny, and always surprising. Cooke nails the atmosphere of shabby New England gentility; God and his aunt like “nothing better than talking over their investments in an unpretentious restaurant, over cocktails and a cod.” Cooke writes with such delicacy and control, such luminous warmth, that the only disappointment comes when the book ends. One yearns to find out what happens to the people in it, and to linger longer with the author’s winning voice.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.