Picks and Pans Review: Murder Story: a Tragedy of Our Time

UPDATED 06/20/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/20/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Lester Velie

Both these books deal with murders, are nonfiction and uncommonly grisly. Murder Story (Macmillan, $15.95) focuses on a crime that occurred in 1980 in the affluent suburb of Somers, N.Y. Two boys from a nearby reform school broke into a house, and one of them strangled a retired Reader's Digest editor and nearly killed her crippled 67-year-old husband. Velie, a reporter who contributes to the Digest, had the cooperation of the victim's family, the murderer (the product of a hopelessly chaotic childhood), the second boy and reform school officials. The author borrows from Capote's technique of In Cold Blood, switching from victim to murderer and back again, a device that in this case merely proves irritating. Murder Story is a clumsy collection of facts, straining to make the obvious point that our criminal justice system is at its most inept in dealing with the young. Crime of Passion (Putnam, $15.95) is about a 17-year-old boy in California who, while on LSD, stabbed his mother and grandmother to death in 1969. The boy had been in a mental hospital and, the day before the murders, had run amok, tried to steal a helicopter and been jailed—only to be released when his mother insisted on it. Janos, a journalist who was once a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson, uses flashbacks to reveal a childhood made hideous by a monstrous father, an ineffectual mother and the pain of a sensitive boy growing up gay and unhappy. Crime of Passion describes a world of Manson-killing madness in the 1960s, an elegant gay scene of antique dealers and movie stars, drug taking, and the bureaucratic horror of understaffed mental hospitals. At his trial, the killer is told by his lawyer, who is trying to give the boy hope, that "most judges operate on the principle that justice has to look good, even if it isn't." But there are good people, too, especially a young attendant in a California maximum-security facility, who manages against all the odds to aid the tortured young murderer simply by patiently listening to him. Janos knows how to use effective details sparingly, and every scene is written as if this were a suspense novel. The ending, a surprise, makes this as gripping as the best of them.

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