Freighted with lust, ambition and heavy-metal music, the case of Pamela Smart—the New Hampshire high school teacher who enlisted her teenage boyfriend to murder her husband—is the stuff of which quickie books are made. But journalist and novelist Joyce (Baby Love) Maynard had something more sophisticated in mind when she constructed this documentary-style novel suggested by the Smart case. Not just a rehash of well-publicized events, To Die For is a fictional character study both of the people involved in the crime and of the appearance-obsessed society in which it happened.
Maynard's version of Pamela Smart is Suzanne Maretto, a beautiful, crafty TV reporter—wannabe. While doing secretarial work at a local cable station, she persuades the boss to let her make a video about teen life. A middle-class girl with aspirations, Maretto finds inspiration in the media: She looks at herself in a TIME Magazine Person of the Year mirror and takes her fashion cues from Diane Sawyer. Her capacity for self-reinvention is exceeded only by her ability to manipulate others into believing she is that invention. She seduces one of her teenage subjects and convinces him that if he murders her husband, they can make love all the time.
Through "interviews" with Maretto, her family, her teenage lover and friends, Maynard creates a world in which appearance is all, and even the most heinous crime can be explained and denied away—as long as the explainer knows the right platitudes. When Suzanne is finally accused of murder, for example, she knows just how to turn the story around: "I hate to go public with all of this," she says, getting ready to portray her late husband as a drug addict and wife-beater. "But the time has come for the truth to be known."
This psychopath and her besotted, confused lover are so clearly drawn you can't help wondering whether Maynard, a New Hampshire resident, actually knew the principals in the Smart case. At any rate, you half expect her fictionalized version to show up on the next installment of Geraldo. (Dutton, $20)