by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

Kids across America learned a terrible truth on June 16, 1959: Superman was not faster than a speeding bullet. George Reeves, the actor they knew as the Man of Steel—aka Clark Kent—in the syndicated TV series The Adventures of Superman, died of a gunshot wound to the head in the bedroom of his L.A. bungalow. Police quickly ruled his death a suicide.

Too quickly, argue Kashner and Schoenberger, who also collaborated on A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant. Although Reeves, 43, had reportedly been despondent over his inability to land another acting job after five years of flying out of windows, bending guns into pretzels and fending off fans during personal-appearance tours ("You bum—let's see you fly!" yelled one pint-size heckler), he was far from suicidal, say the authors. Not only had he cheerfully signed to appear in—and possibly direct—three new episodes of Superman, but he was engaged to wed Leonore Lemmon, a former nightclub chanteuse.

So how do the authors think Reeves died? Murder, they write. Toni Man-nix, Reeves's possessive paramour of 10 years whom he had jilted for Lemmon, was the wife of Eddie "the Bulldog" Mannix, an MGM executive with reputed Mob connections. Toni allegedly hired a contract killer to creep into Reeves's bedroom and shoot him while he slept. Though there's no one around to contradict this theory (Toni died in 1974; the Bulldog, nine years earlier), Reeves's autopsy reveals bruises suggesting that he may have struggled with an attacker just before he died. More compelling is the book's portrait of Reeves as a talented actor and a likable guy forced to cope with life in padded blue tights and a billowy red cape. (St. Martin's," $21.95)

by Joan Aiken

Only a brave writer would attempt to complete a novel begun by Jane Austen. But Aiken, who has written several Austen-inspired works, was game after reading a 17,500-word fragment the gifted English novelist had put aside when her father died in 1805.

Emma Watson is both more action-packed and less satisfying than a real Austen tale. It, too, concerns the mating rites of the upper classes in early 19th-century England. Emma is a relatively impoverished daughter of a country parson with genteel connections. When several potential husbands surface, Aiken wisely has her choose the one Austen would have favored, an officer in the Royal Navy. But Emma also expresses some decidedly 20th-century ideas—that, for example, work outside the home may be a woman's true destiny. And it seems unlikely that Austen would ever have used the phrase "pop the question" when talking about a proposal. These quibbles aside, Emma Watson is a charming entertainment, evoking the atmosphere if not the subtle genius of Austen's beloved books. (St. Martin's, $20.95)

by Monica Crowley

After he resigned in disgrace in 1974, Richard Nixon spent his remaining 20 years shoring up his reputation for posterity. Books like In the Arena, Real Peace and No More Vietnams were intended to remind us that here was a politician of global vision. What was lacking was a chatty memoir, one for people who would rather read Loni Anderson than Arnold Toynbee. Though it was not written by the late president, Nixon off the Record fills that gap.

Crowley, now 28 and studying for a doctorate, was Nixon's foreign-policy assistant from 1990 until his death in '94. During that time she kept a record of her daily conversations with the ex-President. Not surprisingly, she wound up with reams of Nixon's musings on power, post-Communist Russia and Hillary Clinton's diabolical liberalism. But this book is also sprinkled with piquant, off-the-cuff comments about some of the century's celebrities:

—Jack Kennedy: "He spit on waiters and ignored or screamed at the help."

—Oliver Stone: "Why would you give [him] $7 of your money?"

—Dan Rather: "My God! Does the guy have to be so smug?"

—Arsenio Hall: "What is that show, anyway?"

Americans knew many Nixons, from the young Commie-baiter to the elder statesman, but this is a new RN—the sometimes inane one, made even more vivid by Crowley's dippy interludes. There was the time, for instance, the President handed her a cantaloupe. "I'm going to the Bahamas tomorrow," he said, "and I don't want it to go bad. Here, enjoy it!" And then one afternoon, Nixon answered the phone. "Wrong number," he said, setting down the receiver. "Some guy looking for Ed from Taco Bell." (Random House, $23)

by Jill McCorkle

In her fifth novel, McCorkle waxes sexy and sensible. Widow Quee Purdy has just opened a quit-smoking clinic, the latest but least of her businesses. Quee, who has something of a goddess complex, is really out to fix the broken-down love lives of the forlorn crew around her—including a carpenter, a goddaughter, a policeman, a deejay's wife—but that's because she's nursing an old, tragic heartache of her own. McCorkle, juggling several stories at once (she tosses in suicide, coma, even a murder victim in a load of topsoil), supplies the missing links by Moon's end. After all, this is an author who has said she feels the need "to offer a satisfactory explanation" for the mystery of life. When her characters at last have found it, it's quite sweet. (Algonquin, $19)

by John le Carré

You're God's gift, Harry," says Andy Osnard, a British operative who recruits Panama City's finest gentleman's tailor, Harry Pendel. "Classic, ultimate listening post. Wife with access. Contacts to kill for." In his first novel set in the Americas, the wizard of spy fiction has reached the point of mastery in which life is no less than a slightly seedy divine comedy.

With a deep bow to Graham Greene's classic Our Man in Havana, le Carré sets his supple satire in graft-ridden Panama. There, in 1999, the Canal will change from American to home rule, and everyone wants a piece of the geopolitical action. The British have decided what kind of secret intelligence they want to hear: The safety of the vital shipping link between Pacific and Atlantic oceans will be threatened by foreign interests and an unstable local government. The Brits will do anything to convince America to stay in the Zone.

Who better than Harry—near bankrupt and with a past to conceal—to give the intelligence to them? This tailor, after all, works with presidents, generals and drug kings to achieve the triumph of appearance over reality. While Harry dissembles with disastrous consequences—inventing a resistance group here, a secret military cabal there—le Carré, at the height of his considerable powers, reveals with a wink and a smile the skull beneath the skin of a mad century. (Knopf, $25)

by Wayne Biddle

First, the bad news: There really are billions of unfriendly organisms out there. But judging from this irreverent A-to-Z handbook of the top-ranked bacteria, viruses and fungi among us, there are only 100 or so we really need to worry about.

Biddle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, serves up gory details (ebola, E. coli), curious connections (a strain of strep bacteria is what makes yogurt creamy) and historical sidenotes (sarsaparilla was once thought to cure syphilis, "perhaps explaining why otherwise tough cowboys asked for it"). Unfortunately he can only offer common wisdom for dodging fates like guinea worm disease, in which ingested larvae grow through your skin: Stay out of Africa and don't drink the water. (Anchor, $12.95)

by Ken Follett

Page-Turner of the Week

STEVE LOGAN IS AN UPSTANDING YOUNG law student at a small Baltimore college. He's also the unwitting product of a secret government experiment that used genetics to create the perfect soldier. As a result he has at least one twin he has never met. The men are identical right down to their DNA—but raised in separate environments, they handle their natural tendencies toward daring and aggression differently. When Steve gets arrested for a rape committed by his twin, only brilliant young researcher Jeannie Ferrami can expose the truth.

The premise may sound hackneyed, but Follett infuses the book with an irresistible energy. Plus, his riffs on the vast personal data available to computer literates give the novel a 1990s feel. Though Follett made his name with espionage thrillers, this book proves he doesn't need a Cold War to keep the heat on. (Crown, $25.95)

>the Titanic

RAISING THE SUBJECT

ON APRIL 14, 1912, THE LUXURY OCEAN liner Titanic—hailed as unsinkable—slammed into an iceberg en route to New York from England and sank with more than half the 2,200 passengers still aboard. Nearly 85 years later, the disaster remains "one of the great mythic events of the 20th century," writes Steven Biel in his cultural history Down with the Old Canoe (Norton, $25). Biel found that the Titanic has been commercialized almost from the start. "In 1912, a movie, Saved from the Titanic, came out," he says. "A Travelers ad told men that though they couldn't be Titanic heroes, they could protect their women and children with insurance."

Biel's book addresses enduring myths about the ship: Is it true that men put the lives of women and children ahead of their own? Some certainly did, says Biel, who lives in Wakefield, Mass., with his wife and son. Yet we shouldn't forget, he says, that "at first it took more courage to get into a lifeboat in the North Atlantic than to stay on this great ship." One thing that did not happen, says Biel, was the band playing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship sank. Still, he says, "it gives the story such a wonderful ending."

Not that the story of the Titanic ever really ends. The most, famous retelling was Walter Lord's 1956 A Night to Remember, which became a movie in 1958. Clive Cussler's novel Raise the Titanic was a bestseller in 1990. Now there's a CBS mini-series starting Nov. 17, and a James Cameron movie and a Broadway musical, both due next year. In addition to Biel's book, you might want to check out these other current titles:

Titanic: Destination Disaster, John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas (Norton, $15.95). A richly illustrated biography of the doomed vessel.

On Board the Titanic, Shelley Tanaka, paintings by Ken Marschall (Hyperion, $16.95). Child's-eye view, plump with engaging facts (ages 8-12).

SOS Titanic, Eve Bunting (Harcourt Brace, $12). Class barriers separate young Irish emigrants (ages 12 and up).

Every Man for Himself, Beryl Bain-bridge (Carroll & Graf, $21). Haunting tale of a fictional passenger's coming of age.

  • Contributors:
  • Michael A. Lipton,
  • Clare McHugh,
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Paula Chin,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Cynthia Sanz,
  • Patrick Rogers.