NEW YORK — Greed, sex, illegitimacy, drugs, betrayal, murder and money are the elements the publishers talk about in their capsule descriptions of "The Serpent's Tooth," "Blood Relations," "Money to Burn" and "For Love of Money." All four, out this spring and fall, concern the 1985 murder of tobacco heiress Margaret Benson and her adopted son Scott by 35-year-old Steven Benson, Margaret Benson's older son.
The Benson case is but one of the story lines that appear in an explosion of true-crime books on the spring lists of major publishers. The kind of books that send Hollywood slavering promise to continue their incursion into the bookstores at least into the fall.
Two books, "Echoes in the Darkness" and "Engaged to Murder," are out this season on the so-called Main Line murders in suburban Philadelphia eight years ago. Terms used to describe them are more global, scrutinizing the ability of society to live with guilt and innocence in even the briefest summaries.
Robert Mayer's "The Dreams of Ada," published this month on the 1984 disappearance and presumed murder of a recently married convenience store clerk in rural Oklahoma, gets a similar synopsis, emphasizing the author's examination of the values of small-town America. Yet another recent title, John Bryson's "Evil Angels" (Summit), stirs Satanism and wild dogs into the much-publicized 1980 murder in Australia of a 9-week-old girl called Azaria as it explores "evil in the Outback."
Good samaritanship is a key issue in Richard Hammer's "The CBS Murders" (due out next month from William Morrow & Co.), about the 1982 murders here of a bookkeeper involved in a multimillion-dollar diamond swindle and the two technicians who attempted to come to her rescue. And to "Small Sacrifices," a May-publication-date, 487-page psychological profile of an Oregon surrogate mother convicted of shooting her three children, one fatally, in 1983, are added the ingredients of incest, child abuse, jilted lovers and shopping malls. "The stuff," in the view of publisher New American Library, "of which soap operas are made."
Certainly, as fans of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," Tommy Thompson's "Blood and Money" or, more recently, "Fatal Vision" by Joe McGinnis, will attest, the genre is hardly new. "There are murders in the Bible, let's go back to that," said Jeanne Bernkopf, a special editor for William Morrow & Co. who has worked with Joseph Wambaugh on seven true-crime books, most recently the already best-selling "Echoes in the Darkness."
"It's always been a good area of publishing," agreed Larry Ashmead, executive editor at Harper & Row, publisher of one of the Benson books, Christopher Andersen's "The Serpent's Tooth." "When you have a success in this area--and there have been watershed successes--it's an editor's dream. It's a nonfiction subject, it's melodramatic and there's vast appeal to the public. They're exciting books to write for the writers, to edit for the editors, for the publishers to publish and for the salesmen to sell.
"They have great stakes," Ashmead said. "When these books hit, they hit very big."
In the case of "In Cold Blood," for example, often considered the granddaddy of the contemporary true crime story, those big stakes have meant nearly 5-million hardback and paperback books in print since the book was first published in 1966. "Fatal Vision," in which Joe McGinnis probed the murder of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald's wife and children, has racked up more than 3 million copies in hardback, paperback and book club editions since it first appeared in 1983.
On the other hand, Ashmead said, a juicy crime is no automatic guarantee of mammoth publishing sales figures. "You look at anybody's list," he said, "and there are more gravestones in this category than anything else--books they had great expectations for, and they just didn't take off."
Still, said Dan Frank, the senior editor at Viking who edited Robert Mayer's "The Dreams of Ada," about a still-bodyless murder in Oklahoma, "Publishing can be very imitative. Publishers see one kind of book working, and they jump in, thinking there's a whole spate of books to be pursued. Look at all the business-executive-type books 'Iacocca' produced.
"All these things go in waves," Frank said. "If true crime books weren't selling, publishers would drop them."
If no other proof were necessary, what Ashmead calls the "mind-boggling" appearance in a single season of four books on the Benson murders in Florida would confirm that far from dropping this genre, publishers in fact are embracing true-crime topics with renewed passion.