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Echoes in the Darkness by Joseph Wambaugh (Perigord/Morrow: $18.95; 416 pp.)

March 01, 1987|Tom Nolan | Nolan is a contributing editor to Los Angeles magazine

The true events surrounding what came to be known in 1979 as "The Main Line Murder Case" are explored in this 10th book by Joseph Wambaugh. "Echoes in the Darkness" is a fast-moving true-crime thriller that is part case study, part police procedural and part courtroom drama.

The case study involves two men: One, Jay Smith, is the spooky principal of a high school in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Merion, "one of the wealthiest school districts in Pennsylvania"; the other, Bill Bradfield, is that school's most "charismatic" teacher. Outwardly, the two are dissimilar. Smith is secretive and eccentric, with scary eyes ("Some thought Jay Smith looked like an obscene phone call"). Bradfield is an aggressive romantic with a passion for Ezra Pound and a devoted retinue of students and colleagues. But the two have enough in common eventually to be charged in separate trials with having conspired in the deaths of a woman teacher and her two young children.

Susan Reinert is the woman, one of several unhappy and needy types whose romantic attentions Bradfield juggles. The bearded and assertive teacher has a knack for attracting impressionable "disciples" of both sexes. As one critical observer puts it, "Bill Bradfield could smell insecurity and loneliness the way a pig smells truffles."

Bradfield exploits the seemingly boundless credulity of his acolytes in spinning a fantastic scenario, "a play within a play within a labyrinth," starring Dr. Jay Smith as a moonlighting Mafia hit man set on killing Susan Reinert. No one thinks to warn the woman or alert police. Instead, the disciples become participants in Bradfield's hidden agenda as he claims now to be guarding Susan's house against Smith's intrusions, now to be cozying up to Smith to get the goods on him.

While Bradfield and friends are out of town on a holiday weekend seemingly arranged by him as an elaborate alibi, Susan Reinert's body is discovered in a hotel parking lot. Her children are never found. And still the faith of Bradfield's circle doesn't waver, not even when it is revealed that Susan Reinert's hastily arranged will and insurance policies may benefit Bill Bradfield to the tune of $730,000.

The first half of Wambaugh's chronicle is devoted to the bizarre activities of Bradfield and company and the even stranger deeds of Smith, who does "research" in bestiality, was the last person to see his daughter and son-in-law before they vanished, and is convicted of holding up a Sears store while dressed as a Brink's courier.

Organizing and making credible the complicated comings and goings of this curious cast (with "more players than 'Nicholas Nickleby' ") is a formidable assignment. Wambaugh does his best to make it all flow. Minor characters are sharply drawn, like the five-pack-a-day prosecutor "so overloaded with nicotine he could have jump-started a DC-10."

And Wambaugh wrings what grim, coplike humor he can from the unpalatable goings-on. "Bill Bradfield avoided that man like a vampire avoids sunburn." ". . . Sue Myers was busier than a Gulag grave digger. . . ."

One senses some of the difficulties inherent in dealing with real-life material. Things not proven in court or revealed by participants cannot be stated as fact. Wambaugh can only present certain events and let readers draw their own conclusions. This adds suspense and confusion in about equal parts. Another problem here for the reader,544236914interest in (never mind sympathy for) characters who are either downright loathsome or, as a cop might have it, "criminally" dumb.

Once the investigative process begins, reader and writer are on firmer ground. More appealing figures enter the scene, like Joe VanNort and Jack Holz, the Pennsylvania State Police who (reluctantly at first) team with the FBI in a seven-year-long attempt to solve the Reinert killings. The result is "the most massive homicide investigation Pennsylvania had ever experienced."

The detectives suffer some bad breaks. First the tape recording of the telephone call tipping police to the whereabouts of the victim's body is inadvertently erased; then the body is cremated before a thorough forensic pathology report can be done.

But there are lucky breaks, too, some of them due to the semi-academic propensity of one suspect to keep a record of absolutely everything. (Van Nort marvels, "Bradfield's even got a big mouth on paper!")

Four criminal trials ensue (the most recent taking place in April, 1986), and Wambaugh uses a novelist's skills to exploit their dramatic potential right up to the reading of the verdicts. Even then, much remains unknown. Life, unlike the novel, leaves lots of loose ends.

Wambaugh strips away the gothic trappings clinging to this Main Line melodrama to present a stark and eventually engrossing tale of crime and punishment. The policeman-turned-author is at his best in presenting the routines and sensibilities of those fallible humans paid to represent the forces of decency. Their presence redeems the lurid material. Their plodding footsteps provide the only reassuring echoes in their darkness.

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