Earlier this summer, I became – there’s really no better word to describe this – obsessed with a crime story emerging out of Poughkeepsie, New York, just a couple of hours’ train ride north of the five boroughs. An elderly man named James Nichols had died in his house last December, more or less surrounded by a cavalcade of items he’d hoarded for decades. He died alone, without heirs or loved ones, and was thought to be a quiet man, maybe a little strange. Then, a few months later, in the process of cleaning out his house, Poughkeepsie authorities discovered a body, encased in a plastic container and hidden in the basement.
The body was of Nichols’ wife, JoAnn, a first-grade schoolteacher who had disappeared around Christmas of 1985. Townsfolk were suspicious, but had little proof. The police questioned Nichols numerous times, but he stuck to his story: JoAnn, increasingly despondent after the death of their only son three years earlier, had disappeared, leaving behind a note that wasn’t quite suicidal, but hardly cheery. Nichols carried on with his life. But was it much of a life?
That story haunts me because it is the perfect example of horror lurking beneath a seemingly mundane existence. The relationship between a husband and wife involves great intimacy, supreme trust, and, when it sours, tremendous betrayal. Love transmutes into hate at the drop of a hat. We’ll never know why James Nichols killed his wife, but we know he got away with murder, that his awful act hid in the plain sight of his community despite the swirling rumors. But how did he stay so cool? Why did he go over the edge? Or, more awfully, did he never have an edge to begin with?
JoAnn Nichols’ disappearance and murder took place almost thirty years ago. But it’s a story that could have happened years, even decades earlier, that in fictionalized form would have been a fascinating, terror-laden work of domestic suspense. I wonder how a writer like Celia Fremlin, who understood the desperation of a post-partum-afflicted mother in The Hours Before Dawn, or Margaret Millar, who understood the toxicity of marriage like few others, would have used the Nichols tale, or something like it, as source material. Nichols’ truncated life is full of frustrating gaps. But fiction could give her a powerful voice, one that underscores that the most violent urges are acted on by the ones you think you know best.