by William Wright

No one comes off well in this depressing biography of Christina Onassis. Not the maladroit Wright, author of such previous celebrity chronicles as The Von Bülow Affair, who writes stiffly of lies that stuck to shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (Christina's father) "like a bad haircut" and of Tina Livanos (her heiress mother) seeking a respite "from the toxic doses of glamour."

Not Ari, an often neglectful, sometimes bullying daddy. Not Christina, a pitiful, pill-popping, thunder-thighed pleasure seeker who let herself be cruelly used by high-society parasites. Not her manipulative, fourth and last husband and father of her daughter, Athina, Thierry Roussel.

Certainly not former stepmother Jackie Kennedy, who is portrayed as a creature who would make a swell Medea. "My father's unfortunate obsession," was Christina's most benign characterization. "Jackie was the most mercenary person I've ever met," she noted. "She thinks, talks, and dreams of money, nothing but money....What amazes me is that she survives while everyone around her drops. She's dangerous, she's deadly."

Wright, basing the book on more than 100 interviews, depicts Christina as a girl raised by servants in posh settings, notably Ari's yacht, the Christina. She and her brother. Alexander, had wretched manners. After the Onassis-Livanos marriage began dissolving and Ari took up with opera star Maria Callas, he never rebuked his children for being rude to the diva. One favorite harassment: running a motorboat in noisy circles around the yacht to disturb Callas's naps.

Christina grew up quiet and plain, with somber saucer eyes edged with dark lines and a large nose (the nose and lines were dealt with surgically), trying to figure out where she belonged. She spent her adult life making suicide attempts when things got too depressing and dealing with such blows as her Aunt Eugenie's mysterious death (perhaps the result of a drug overdose, perhaps the result of a beating from husband Stavros Niarchos), her brother's fatal plane crash, her mother's fatal drug overdose and her father's death from myasthenia gravis.

There were four marriages, countless love affairs—one of Wright's sources hints that Christina's lovers included stepbrother John Kennedy Jr.. Jackie's son.

Christina obviously loved not wisely but too much. And she hated rejection. At one time, she repeatedly sent her private jet to buzz the villa of a beau who had ended an affair. To guarantee the continued presence of another ex-lover, she paid him $30,000 a month to stay in communication with her.

Christina died in 1988 at 37. leaving 3-year-old Athina and a half-billion-dollar fortune, playing out what one can hope was the final act of a true Greek tragedy. (Simon and Schuster, $22.95)

by Eugenia Zukerman

It would be yet further evidence that the goods and talents of the world are inequitably distributed if internationally acclaimed flutist Eugenia Zukerman could write a novel fit to read. She can't.

Taking the Heat is as contrived and poorly paced a tale as one could hope to avoid. Its heroine is Nora Watterman, a, ahem, flutist, devoted wife and mother who, by dint of a wrong turn and an empty gas tank, becomes embroiled in a passionate love affair with a blond, leonine stranger named Theo.

Nora suffers the guilt indigenous to adultery, lying prolifically for the sake of her 17-year-old son, Nicky, and her TV producer husband, Bernie. When Bernie learns of the affair, there are tears and recriminations even though he, it turns out, hasn't been fanatical about his wedding vows either.

When Nora lets out the family dog and he's hit by a car. Bernie excoriates her for carelessness. When she gives the car keys to Nicky and he's killed—let's pile on the melodrama—by a truck, Nora tries suicide.

Can this life and this marriage be saved? Yes, after Nora spends some redemptive months in Poland, playing with an orchestra and learning about her mother, Elena, a Holocaust survivor who died when Nora was a child. Yes, after Nora returns from Poland and learns that her son's girlfriend has given birth to a baby girl, Elena.

Zukerman brings nothing new to this stew, and Nora and Bernie are barely more than blurs. Unsympathetic blurs at that. She is also far too fond of such tortured tropes as "I was able to gather details of Theo's life, bright bouquets of insight." And she overdoes what one might call rhetorical arpeggios: Linden Hill "was more than an estate. It was a home. A haven." "Sorry was not good enough, sorry did nothing. Sorry was no use at all." Enough is enough. Enough is too much. Enough is way too much. (Simon and Schuster, $18.95)

by Lawrence Block

James Léo Motley inflicts pain for a living. He likes to do his work with no interference—not from the cops, not from others in the same profession, not from the people who hire him and especially not from a recovering alcoholic and ex-cop turned private eye like Matthew Scudder.

Motley and Scudder are antagonists in a book that cries out to be read at night. It would be hard to find a better mystery.

The assumption has always been that when men like Motley don't get their way. their revenge button goes on red alert. No one knows this unwritten rule better than Scudder. but when a chance comes for him to give Motley some serious jail time, he grabs it. even if he has to stretch the truth.

Twelve years later. Motley is released and plots a payback. Soon, the novel turns into a bloody chess match between the men. The first to feel Motley's pain are Connie. one of two women to testify against him. and her children. From there, the battle escalates as Motley turns his murderous glance in the direction of any woman Scudder ever knew. Then, the two meet again:

" 'You took twelve years of my life,' he said. They locked me up. Do you know what it's like to be locked up?'

" 'It didn't have to be twelve years. You could have been back on the street in a year or two. You're the one who decided to make it hard time."

"His grip tightened and my knees buckled. I might have fallen if he hadn't been holding on. I shouldn't have served a day.' he said. "Aggravated assault upon a police officer. I never assaulted you. You assaulted me. and then you framed me. They sent the wrong man to jail.'

" 'You belonged there.' "

More bodies fall, more unwitting bystanders are damaged as the feud between Scudder and Motley turns into a mystery equivalent of Ali vs. Frazier. with no life safe, no shadow innocent enough to ignore. With this first-class tale, Block (Eight Million Ways to Die) should slide out of the mystery shadows into the genre's top tier.

Scudder is a perfect detective, a worthy successor to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. The dialogue is tough and sharp, the pacing a two-minute drill through New York City's dark side, and the reflexively evil Motley is born to be hated. (Morrow, $18.95)

by Avery Corman

Although the actual words don't appear on its jacket, this book has "soon to be a major motion picture" written all over it. Corman. author of the novel on which the film Kramer vs. Kramer was based, has done it again: chosen an earnest, important topic—this time date rape—created accessible, if bland, characters and written a predictable story in a simple style.

Elizabeth Mason is the New York-bred daughter of affluent parents who made sure their little girl had the best: private schools, vocal lessons, the right summer camps. Her first week as a college freshman. Elizabeth—bright, beautiful but naive—meets Jimmy Andrews, a senior and a Big Man on Campus. They go on a date, drink a few beers, neck a little—and Jimmy rapes her.

The experience is shattering. Elizabeth becomes a recluse, telling her story to no one. Eventually, however, she presses charges against Jimmy. Most of the novel is devoted to the difficulties of winning such a case, the ostracism Liz experiences on campus, the tensions the rape causes between her parents. Along the way, the Masons ruminate on such issues as whether the affluence they've fought so hard for is somehow responsible for Elizabeth's predicament.

Given that this isn't a particularly imaginative story line. Corman does devise a few rich scenes, such as the descriptions of the antirape rally Elizabeth organizes at Lay-ton College. But just about everything else is standard issue: Elizabeth's father's fury and nervous breakdown: the depiction of Jimmy's parents as ineffectual WASPs who worry more about what their country club friends think than about whether their son has a problem: even the local cops who are skeptical about Liz's claims because they resent rich, privileged college "brats." There's little new here, but it almost doesn't matter. Corman's got a Big Subject and Big Subjects often succeed on their own. Like a mediocre screenplay, this book moves glibly, stays on the surface and makes a point. It's as if Corman's counting on a strong cast to make up for the weak material. (Simon and Schuster. $19.95)

>From Five Rings, Six Crises, Seven Dwarfs, and 38 Ways to Win an Argument, compiled by John Boswell and Dan Starer (Viking, $14.95):

The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Valentine and Proteus.

The Three Little Pigs: Fifer, Fiddler, Practical.

The Fearsome Foursome: Rosie Greer, Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen.

The Five Civilized Nations: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole.

Six Categories of Dogs: working, sporting, hounds, terriers, nonsporting, toy.

The Magnificent Seven: Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner, Horst Buchholz, James Coburn, Brad Dexter, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn.

The Ivy League Eight: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Yale.

The Nine Orders of Angels: seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, angels.

121 Movies Whose Titles Begin with Three: Three; Three Bad Men in the Hidden Fortress; Three Bad Sisters; Three Bites of the Apple...oh, never mind.

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • Sara Nelson.