When Reggie Stoner is found dead in Great Depression era Philadelphia, his death is ruled as caused by pneumonia. However, First Assistant DA Tom Rossi notices that Stoner exhibited more symptoms of arsenic poisoning rather than the illness. After Stoner’s widow, Lillian, receives a large sum in insurance money, Rossi becomes obsessed with the idea that Stoner’s death was a murder. He soon spies Lillian having an affair with an Italian lothario, Giorgio DiSipio. Ready to swoop in and arrest her, Rossi is stopped by her uncle, the corrupt Deputy Mayor Bill Evans, who Rossi suspects is exchanging sex for money with his niece. Soon numerous other suspicious deaths occur, all leading the wives to collect their deceased husband’s insurance money. Giorgio DiSipio, Rossi realizes, is more than just a wannabe mobster and petty criminal; he has supplied seventeen women with poison, leading them to believe that if they murder their husbands, he will run away and be with them. Each one believes DiSipio is their one true love, and each is unaware of the other lovers.
The fast pace keeps readers on the edge of their seats, wondering how Rossi will possibly get past Evans’ influence in the police department. With excellent dialogue, this deeply-researched and well-written novel offers both a gritty crime conspiracy and an intriguing look into the minds of the desperate people living in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. While the novel explores dark topics such as lust, greed, infidelity, and incest, its tone is light, never disturbing the reader too much. The characters are fully developed, the protagonists likeable, and the antagonists menacing. It is the characters in particular that keep the reader hooked. Rossi is a typical good guy, though he is willing to go to the edge of the law in order to solve the serial murders, and Evans and DiSipio are both gritty antagonists in their own right. DiSipio is fairly light-hearted, almost playful in his love affairs, while Evans is a darker creature who elicits a deeper hatred from readers and illuminates the corruption of greedy higher-ups in government systems. The women are at the heart of the story, their lust and cunning both making the reader cringe and intriguing them, making them want to know more about their motives.
Only a few grammatical and punctuation errors appear throughout the book, but they rarely distract.
Author Gus Pelagatti has over forty years of experience in Philadelphia’s courts as a lawyer and has obviously put a lot of time, effort, and passion into The Wicked Wives. A novel of time and place, those who enjoy either historical fiction or true crime books will surely devour this novel.