The life of an isolated couple with a disturbing family mystery is blown apart by an outsider: an Ethan Frome-like novel from the author of The Book of Marvels (1990), etc. Jay Skikey, molested as a boy by an adoptive mother, was also tutored in French and acquired other elegant traits that earn him -- after he becomes a smooth, unflinching killer for the mob -- the nickname ""Professor of Aesthetics."" Then, in 1932, when it comes time for Jay to disappear for a while, he moves to a small-town boardinghouse run by the Farrells -- spinster Edna and her brother, Morris, the formerly gorgeous hope of the family who was psychologically shattered in WW I. Now a trackwalker (in his 15 years of service there hasn't been an accident on that stretch of railway line), Morris remembers his two lovers -- a hometown boy who died of battlefield wounds in France, and a Frenchman. Edna's and Morris's neediness, their loneliness, repels the Professor, reminding him of his other victims, and he proceeds to charm both of them seductively while plotting their destruction. There is something terrifying in his desire to hurt these innocents, and the suspense builds. And then, too, the Farrells have their own secret.... The prose is spare yet lyrical, the point of view alternating among different characters. The ""Real McCoy"" colloquial voice of a local boarder is forced and obtrusive, breaking the spell, but this is otherwise a nearly flawless American gothic tale.