A Story of Adultery and Murder in an American Family

By Pope Brock

Doubleday. 373 pp. $24.95

Most books fall into well-defined categories that offer comfort to the reader. Journalist Pope Brock's "Indiana Gothic," however, defies ready categorization. Part biography, the book tells the story of Ham Dillon, an ancestor of Brock who was a small-town politician in Indiana at the beginning of the 20th century. Part history, the book traces Dillon's family relationships in a highly evocative picture of rural life in that period. The nub of the book, though, is a blend of lust, intrigue and revenge that causes the reader to wonder where truth and fiction merge. Brock has chosen to delve deeply into the wounds of his own family's past, but he has done so in a completely unself-conscious way. The result is a book that both engrosses and disturbs.

As the story opens, Dillon is a charismatic farmer-politician who has reached a state of respectful and respectable equilibrium with his wife, Maggie. Sure, they love each other, but Ham realizes he can never spark the kind of passion in Maggie that will make him feel complete. Maggie's reserve extends not only to Ham but also to her older sister, Allie, who with her children arrives for an extended visit. Ham's natural charm and charisma and Allie's flirtatious nature prove a volatile combination. But what to do? Allie is Maggie's sister, after all, and Ham is an up-and-coming politician.

They carefully begin an affair; Brock describes this in detail that engages the reader while simultaneously inspiring a feeling of incredulity. Ham and Allie contrive various ways to continue their affair, with Ham even arranging for Allie's husband, Link Hale, to obtain a job close by so that Allie and her children have to move from Kentucky to Indiana. Such "kindness" makes Link feel accepted by Ham, even as Ham is using Link as a pawn to create opportunities to be with Allie.

The end begins with Allie's decision to bear a child by Ham. Her efforts to arrange a meeting with Link after she becomes pregnant are comically told, with the meticulous Link consulting a medical book after the child's birth to ascertain whether it is scientifically possible to give birth prematurely to a 12-pound baby. As the boy grows, his resemblance to Ham becomes uncanny, which only raises further doubts in Link's mind. The pain of Link's discovery coincides with Allie's growing resentment of her husband and Ham's increasing desire to have it all.

Vividly told, the book reaches a climax that spills quickly into a murder trial at which the defendant's novel plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity becomes the focal issue. Brock is particularly good at capturing the crucial cross-examinations and the pageantry of a sensational murder trial in a small town.

The dust jacket advertises "Indiana Gothic" as all fact, but the dialogue and level of detail in the description of the affair make that claim impossible to credit. Brock himself never shares his sources, so the book reads like a historical novel without the normal disclaimers. As "history" it suffers from the furtive but incomplete stabs at context that Brock sketches. Ultimately, those shortcomings and the difficulty of knowing where to pigeonhole "Indiana Gothic" are of less concern to this reader than the absence of an overarching theme. The triumph of lust over love? The irrational feelings love can inspire in all of us? The dangers of subjecting family relationships to the criminal justice system? The fragility of family love in the face of our sheer wantonness?

Although those themes inspire no joy in the reader, this book nonetheless is well worth reading for the skillfully drawn narrative, the vivid portrayal of characters who remind us of our own foibles, and the picture of life in turn-of-the-century rural America. In confronting the shame of his family's past, Pope Brock has risen above it to shine a light on the darkness within all of us.

David C. Frederick, a Washington lawyer and the author of "Rugged Justice: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the American West, 1891-1941."