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About The Book

From the acclaimed author of Atticus and Mariette in Ecstasy comes a stylish novel set in the hard-drinking, fast-living New York City of the Jazz Age that follows two lovers in a torrid affair on an arc of murder and sexual self-destruction.

Based on a real case whose lurid details scandalized Americans in 1927 and sold millions of newspapers, acclaimed novelist Ron Hansen’s latest work is a tour de force of erotic tension and looming violence. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Ruth Snyder is a voluptuous, reckless, and altogether irresistible woman who wishes not only to escape her husband but that he die—and the sooner the better. No less miserable in his own tedious marriage is Judd Gray, a dapper corset-and-brassiere salesman who travels the Northeast peddling his wares. He meets Ruth in a Manhattan diner, and soon they are conducting a white-hot affair involving hotel rooms, secret letters, clandestine travels, and above all, Ruth’s increasing insistence that Judd kill her husband. Could he do it? Would he? What follows is a thrilling exposition of a murder plan, a police investigation, the lovers’ attempt to escape prosecution, and a final reckoning for both of them that lays bare the horror and sorrow of what they have done. Dazzlingly well-written and artfully constructed, this impossible-to-put-down story marks the return of an American master known for his elegant and vivid novels that cut cleanly to the essence of the human heart, always and at once mysterious and filled with desire.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for A Wild Surge or Guilty Passion includes an introduction, discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In a vivid, morbidly compelling novel of infidelity and deceit, Ron Hansen brings to life the actual events of the famed 1927 Snyder/Gray murder case—a lurid scandal shocked a nation.

Trapped in a loveless marriage, the irresistible, reckless Ruth Snyder starts an affair with owlish Judd Gray, a lingerie salesman from New Jersey boasting his own marital woes. What begins as a tryst quickly turns sinister, as Ruth and an enchanted, alcoholic Judd begin to plot the murder of Ruth’s husband Albert. From murder plan to police investigation to their murder trial, Hansen deftly recreates this famous story with sultry prose—and shows just how dangerous desire can be.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. What were your first impressions of the opening crime scene? Did you immediately expect Ruth’s involvement? Why or why not?
2. Discuss the magazine-style narration of the novel. How did this affect your reading? What did you make of the references to the future, post-trial? Consider Ethel’s tuberculosis, Ruth’s incarceration, and Judd’s memoir in your response.
3. Consider Ruth and Judd’s “love,” and how Ruth took part in trysts with numerous men, while Judd’s infidelity focused exclusively on Ruth. Do you think Ruth really loved Judd? Did Judd really love Ruth? Was there something there beyond sexual infatuation and the promise of Albert’s disposal?
4. How were Ruth and Judd similar? How were they different? Can you identify any specific personality traits that result in such a dangerous pairing? How did their respective backgrounds drive them to first an affair, and then murder?
5. Was the author effective in painting a picture of New York City during the Jazz Discuss the historical specifics—from actors to periodicals to shampoo brands—the author used to illustrate the late 1920s.
6. Consider the role Ruth and Judd’s families played in this re-imagined account of history. How would you describe Ruth and Albert’s marriage? Judd and Isabel’s? In you opinion, who were the ultimate victims of this crime?
7. Do you agree with the tabloids that Ruth is the “quintessential femme fatale?”
8. When Father George Murphy visits Ruth in prison, she tells him, “Men fantasize about sex all the time…and women fantasize about romance…and looking for romance will get you in just as much trouble.” Are sex and romance equally dangerous? Discuss their destructive nature in relation to Judd and Ruth’s erratic affair.
9. Did you feel any sympathy for Albert? He was painted as a vile, abusive character—but did he deserve to die? Discuss the complexities of being trapped in an abusive marriage, especially during the time period of the novel when it was difficult to divorce.
10. Do you believe, as the priest puts its, that Ruth arrived at a “deep and profound sense of repentance”? Consider Ruth’s testimony during the trial in your response. Was she justified in lying to stay out of jail and with Lorraine?
11. Considering Judd’s nervous, alcoholic nature, why do you think he was so calm during the trial and his sentencing? Do you believe he truly found tranquility in his renewed faith?
12. Did you find yourself hoping for an appeal of Ruth and Judd’s death sentences? Why or why not? Did you sympathize with either character?
13. Were you able to find any kind of poeticism as Judd and Ruth’s charred bodies lay almost touching on the gurneys? Was it just another case of what “whiskey, lust, and sin will ultimately condemn one to”?

Enhance Your Book Club

 1. Since A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion is based on real events, research the actual happenings of Ruth and Judd’s trial. How do they compare to the novel? Can you find any facts left out or altered?
2. Ron Hansen includes a long list of references to late 1920’s music, fashion, movies, and culture, such as the films of Mae West, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby , and Irving Berlin’s “Always.” Sample some of these other mediums and re-read your favorite passages from the book. Does it help to better place you in the time period?
3. Read another historical fiction novel and compare it with A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion. Consider Joseph Kanon’s Stardust , Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World , or one of Ron Hansen’s previous novels: Are there similarities in the devices used to convey the mood of the period?

About The Author

Photograph by Charles Barry

Ron Hansen is the author of ten novels—including The Kid, Mariette in Ecstasy, Desperadoes, and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion—and two short story collections, among them She Loves Me Not. His novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He graduated from Creighton University in Omaha and went on to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop where he studied with John Irving. He is now Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor in Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University in northern California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (June 7, 2011)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451617573

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Raves and Reviews

"A gripping, entertaining novel." -Los Angeles Times

“Ron Hansen has written a mordantly funny, vividly compelling and irresistibly readable chronicle of the Twenties." —Joyce Carol Oates

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