In 1907, in a small Wisconsin town that bears his name, Ralph Truitt, the wealthy owner of an iron foundry, waits on the cusp of a looming blizzard for the train carrying Catherine Land, his mail-order bride from Chicago. From their first encounter, these desperate characters are plunged into a maelstrom of conflict that propels Robert Goolrick’s fierce and sophisticated debut novel, A Reliable Wife, forward at breakneck speed.

Overcoming his sense of betrayal when he realizes Catherine has used the photograph of another to win her way into his life, Ralph reconciles himself to marrying her anyway, and his feelings for the woman some 20 years his junior slowly deepen. Shortly after they wed, he dispatches her to St. Louis on a mission to entice his son Antonio, the product of his first marriage to a faithless Italian bride, to return home. When Catherine arrives there, the roots of her plan to murder Ralph are revealed, and as she confronts the enormity of the evil in whose service she’s been enlisted she’s torn between the seeming inevitability of her deadly plan and a growing sympathy for her husband’s plight.

The harshness of the bleak Wisconsin landscape Goolrick so effectively evokes mirrors the psychological torment of his deeply flawed, but utterly human, characters. “The winters were long,” he writes, “and tragedy and madness rose in the pristine air.” When the scene shifts to St. Louis, Goolrick demonstrates equal skill at painting the garish colors of the urban underworld from which Catherine has emerged, an environment that has shaped the character she fights to overcome.

In its best moments, A Reliable Wife calls to mind the chilling tales of Poe and Stephen King, and at its core this is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. It melds a plot drenched in suspense with expertly realized characters and psychological realism. The fate of those characters is in doubt right up to this relentless story’s intense final pages, and Goolrick’s ability to sustain that tension is a tribute to his craftsmanship and one of the true pleasures of a fine first novel.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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