A Murderer in the Family


It is not uncommon for novelists to deal with speculation about how much of their own lives makes its way into their fiction. The typical response is to deflect, with some version of how we are in all our books, and leave it at that.

Adam Rapp doesn’t play that game. In a two-page introduction provided to readers in advance copies of his new novel, “Wolf at the Table,” he wanted us to know a few things about his mother, Mary Lee Rapp, who died from cancer in 1997, at 55.

Fourteen years after her death, one of Rapp’s aunts gave him a shoe box of his mother’s belongings, in which he found her laminated nurse’s ID from Stateville Correctional, a maximum-security prison in Illinois.

Rapp grew up in nearby Joliet, and lived there when the serial killer John Wayne Gacy was arrested in 1978 and later convicted of the murders of 33 young men and boys. Rapp writes that his research led him to believe his mother was “likely the nurse who performed [Gacy’s] last physical before his execution” at Stateville on May 9, 1994.

This discovery gave Rapp the idea for the novel. “I wanted to honor my mother’s life,” he writes, “and I wanted to examine how a seemingly normal family — a good, hardworking, lower-middle-class family — can be in relationship to this very scary part of America.”

Consider this fair warning: With the story of the fictional Larkin family, Rapp spares nothing in his attempt to explain what most of us want to believe is the inexplicable. For that reason, it is not a book for those weary of attempts to cast the monsters among us as merely misunderstood.

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