It could have easily been the one big story that Peter Maas missed. He had scarcely given it a second thought when he read in 1977 that Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton had fired Marie Ragghianti, 35, his chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, who was charging his administration with graft. Maas, 54, had spent a career plumbing the depths of corruption as an investigative journalist, seeing little sunshine. There had been exceptions like Frank Serpico, the New York City cop who had successfully bucked wrongdoing in the force and whose story Maas turned into a best-seller, but they were few and far between. "When I first heard about Marie," says Maas, "I felt the same way as when I first heard about Serpico. So there's corruption. What else is new?"

What turned out to be new was that Marie Ragghianti, the subject of Maas' new book, Marie: A True Story (Random House, $16.95), had, like Serpico, taken on a rotten establishment and won. Producer Dino de Laurentiis, as he did with Serpico, has snapped up the movie rights. And as with Serpico, Maas will share the profits of his book with his subject.

As Maas tells it, his heroine seemed an unlikely reformer. Back in 1960 her life looked golden, if uneventful. She was a bright and popular student at Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach, Fla. She had a quick wit and dark eyes which got her elected Miss Daytona Beach. No one would have tagged "pretty Marie" as a woman who, 17 years later, would play an instrumental role in toppling a state's administration.

Her journey from beauty queen to reformer was riddled with hardship. After six years of physical abuse by a violent husband, she gathered her three children and left their home in Marietta, Ga. With a series of part-time jobs, she put herself through Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where she became active in Democratic politics. Soon after graduating in 1974, Marie landed a job as extradition officer in the incoming administration. Less than a year later she was tapped by Governor Blanton for the pardons and paroles board. Almost immediately she began to uncover payoffs by convicts to state officials—even in the governor's office—to secure early releases. Ragghianti began denying pardons but was met with resistance and finally a smear campaign from Blanton. She was picked up twice for "drunk-driving," and the word was spread throughout the statehouse that she had gotten her job by "screwing everyone in sight."

"When I made the decision to stay and fight I knew I'd probably be fired," says Marie. She was right, but she sued for reinstatement and won. During the ensuing federal investigation, which also uncovered widespread corruption in his administration, Blanton was removed from office.

"We pay so much lip service to the idea that one person can make a difference," says Maas, "but we don't believe it. To me, that was the story."

Maas met Marie in 1979 while lecturing in Nashville. "I was exhilarated by her, like I was with Serpico," he recalls. "For so much of my life I saw nothing but bad, bad, bad. It's sensational to find someone who won't go along to get along." To Maas' chagrin, Marie informed him they had in fact spoken before. After reading Serpico during her trial for reinstatement, Marie phoned Maas at his New York apartment to ask him to read her journals. "I don't even remember the call," he says ruefully. "I had referred her to my agent."

Maas commuted to Nashville every week during the next two years. "It was cathartic," admits Ragghianti. "I felt like I was reliving all the anger and outrage I had felt." But the trips were hard on Maas' family. He was forced to divide his time between the book, his teenage son, John-Michael, and his girlfriend, caterer Suzanne Jones. Maas' first wife, producer Audrey (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) Gellen, died in 1975 from a cerebral hemorrhage and a brief second marriage had ended in divorce.

Maas grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the son of an art director. After attending Duke University, he began his career with the Herald Tribune in Paris, later writing for, among others, LIFE, Esquire and New York magazines. One of the biggest stories of his career came in 1963 when he reported on Mafia "soldier" Joe Valachi's revelations in the Saturday Evening Post. A book, The Valachi Papers, followed six years later. In 1975 he defined life among America's gypsies in King of the Gypsies and in 1979 he wrote his first novel, Made in America, based on underworld figures he encountered as an investigative reporter.

After Serpico, Maas had vowed to give up the seamy beat in favor of writing fiction. But he may, in fact, have found in his real-life subjects the qualities of which great fictional characters are made—loyalty, truth, a dogged adherence to their convictions in the face of adversity. For a journalist who often spends his time observing the dark side of human nature, people like Marie restore his faith. "All my life I've met tough guys," says Maas. "Valachi, Serpico. But underneath all the soft stuff, Marie's as tough as they come." From Maas, the compliment is as high as they come.