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By Joe McGinniss


381 pages, $21.95

WWHAT KIND of small talk can a husband manage while driving his wife home from a restaurant parking lot where -- still unknown to her -- his hired gunmen were supposed to have rubbed her out?

As they drive that last mile home to their familiar driveway, does he propose plans for tomorrow with the woman he wishes were lying dead on the seat next to him?

A fiction writer has to perform for the reader, constructing a scenario that is believable even though it's just a tale. Not so with the nonfiction writer. The investigative reporter can present a proposition no novelist would dare to make: This really happened.

Yes, folks, there really is a Robert O. Marshall on death row in Trenton, N. J., and he really did import a couple of rednecks to shoot his wife in the family Cadillac while he dawdled in the men's room at the restaurant where they had just dined. But when he finally slipped into the driver's seat that night in Toms River, N. J., Maria was still sitting there in the dark, waiting to be driven home.

Rather than spinning a novelist's yarn about the couple's ride home, Joe McGinniss simply leaves the reader to reflect on the state of mind of Rob Marshall, who had taken out a $1.5 million insurance policy on Maria's life in a desperate bid to recover his Atlantic City gambling debts and make off with his neighbor's wife.

Big-spending insurance executive Marshall and his hired guns from Louisiana picked another spot on another night in 1984 for him to stop the Cadillac and get out on another pretext, leaving Maria alone and vulnerable with the single red rose he had given her in a casino.

In reading this investigative report about Marshall (told from the viewpoint of his three sons, who struggled to maintain their blind faith in their dad's innocence) I wondered why we read such stuff. After all, it has nothing to commend it except that it really did happen.

The reader is asked to pay $21.95 to find out not what author McGinniss has created out of his imagination but what journalist McGinniss has found during his investigation. On the one hand, McGinniss is spared the task of making up interesting, believable details to lead the reader on. On the other, he is required at times to recite a litany of mundane facts and figures that no novelist would get away with concocting.

Yet the reader buys the book and hangs onto every detail -- such as the numerous telephone calls documented in the police report. These were, after all, the calls Rob Marshall actually made to his ex-girlfriend down the street and to Ferlin L'Heureux and Ricky Dew in Louisiana.

The author of "The Selling of the President, 1968" is no graceful painter of purple prose. He builds his narrative on direct quotations, extracted or extrapolated from interviews. And like a good newspaper reporter, he bites his paragraphs off short. You won't get bogged down in this clearly written book.

But if your mind should wander as you marvel at Marshall's ability to shed real tears for his lost lover, who is back with her husband, just turn to the photograph of Marshall embracing his wife a week before her death. Already, the man behind those determined eyes had set the wheels in motion.

Although McGinniss has plenty of tapes to play for the reader -- including Marshall's hokey farewell cassettes for sons and lover -- he does have to manufacture some material to fill in the gaps. It's lucky that he usually sticks to embellishing the simple facts, because whenever journalist McGinniss attempts to wax philosophical -- like an omniscient novelist -- he sounds forced and trite, almost bordering on supermarket journalism. ("But Snow White had been dead since September and the net around Rob Marshall was tightening fast.")

Given that this is not exactly literature, "Blind Faith" offers today's reader a powerful story well told -- all that most ask since the passing of "Crime and Punishment" from the school curriculum.

Let Dostoevsky spend 120 pages conjuring up the homicidal psyche of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who never was. For us, just knowing something real about insurance man Robert Oakleigh Marshall, 49, lately of Trenton, N. J., will do just fine.

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