It is Chicago in 1931, and Asta Eicher and her three children are found strangled to death. Asta, it turns out, is only one of a series of middle aged lonely widows who met their murderer through a bogus mail-order matrimonial bureau.
This story is based on a real case which Phillips brings to life by creating a fictional character, a Chicago Tribune investigative journalist. Emily Thornhill is thirty-five years old, of good family, graduate of the University of Chicago, and involved with an older married man. She represents the new woman, the unmarried working girl whose status suits her just fine. With this case she is freed from writing womens angle society pieces to bring her female insight into an understanding of the horrific things that can be inflicted on women and children.
The books slow pace gives the reader a solid sense of America mired in the deep 1930s depression. Described are the small rural towns of West Virginia, the countryside of Iowa, the vivacity of Chicago, the power of rural vigilante justice, the tenuous position of gay men, and, always, Emilys need to justify her position as a reporter with equal status to her male peers.
Photos and short news bylines from the original event are sprinkled generously throughout the book.