Hansen’s novel begins with the grisly and inept murder of Albert Snyder, a New York graphic artist from Queen’s Village, a successful homeowner with a beautiful wife and a young daughter. On first view, the scene appears to be a robbery/homicide, but the scattered story of an unscathed Ruth Snyder and a confusing bounty of conflicting evidence point suspicious police to the voluptuous woman who claims to have fainted after a blow to the head by an intruder. Questioned at the precinct, she soon caves and fingers her lover. Thus begins an affair-cum-murder that ends in a trial and execution that rivals the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 for headlines.
In the New York City café where Judd Gray first encounters Ruth Snyder over a drunken lunch with friends, romance is on the horizon, each of them unhappily married in a decade when divorce is frowned upon (each would lose custody of their young daughters). But life is good - Prohibition in full force, heady financial times ushering in a heady atmosphere enhanced by free-flowing and readily available booze. An extramarital affair doesn’t seem so outrageous in such a climate. Judd falls hard for the blonde beauty, her bedroom skills far beyond his expectations, his head spinning with thoughts of stolen hours of amorous play, his conscience dulled by a flask frequently refilled.
In an era when anything seems possible and privacy is taken for granted, the lovers meet frequently for clandestine sex and elaborate exchanges of affection. Ruth is an intuitive manipulator of her gregarious traveling salesman, Judd glossing over her educational deficits, thrilled into idiocy by her physical skills and ripe body. Certainly Ruth is no shrinking violet when cajoling her lover into entertaining murder as a means to their happiness, the two floating on an island of fantasy until the fateful night when Judd’s inept drunkenness forces Ruth to take charge in a brutal and cold-blooded killing to purchase her freedom at the cost of her husband’s life.
Like some freakish American tragedy born of a decade of excess, the small-town Bonnie and Clyde botch the scene as Hansen moves from the scene of the crime to chapters that illustrate the accelerating affair and the madness of lovers denied what they want most- to be together. Love turns to frustration, argument, and finally, the deed. The scandalous trial captures the country’s imagination: the luscious blonde and her weak lover, the gruesomeness and sheer brutality of the murder turning the jurors against a woman who claims innocence and a man who meekly accepts his fate.
The final scene - the execution - is sufficiently harrowing in this particular morality tale but the whole is remarkable, a bad movie that would empty a theater for its overheated, preposterous acting and the moral vacuum of its stars. But in the 1920s in America, anything is possible - even murder - the public’s dreams and imagination fueled by newspaper accounts of love and death, the moral wasteland of debauchery, infidelity, lust, booze and murder - with an execution for dessert, proof that the righteous triumph, the institution of marriage the bedrock of society.