September 18, 1989 12:00 PM

by Linda Wolfe

There are some crimes that ping like a tuning fork in our attentive chamber of fears. Such was the so-called preppy murder case, in which a child of privilege was killed by another child of privilege in a summer gone wild with excess.

Jennifer Levin was 18 when she and 19-year-old Robert Chambers left a bar in the pampered precincts of Manhattan’s Upper East Side in late August 1986. A few hours later, she was found dead in Central Park, strangled and half naked. There was no mystery about the killer. Robert Chambers lied at first—saying they had left the bar separately—but finally changed his story and claimed that Jennifer was a victim of an accident during what came to be known—after the introduction of a new and awful criminal defense tactic—as “rough sex.”

What made the story so riveting was its slow uncovering of the world of the murderer and his victim: fast-living kids drinking with fake IDs, casually having sex, recklessly flirting with danger. For Chambers was not the American aristocrat he pretended to be. He was the son of an ambitious nurse and an alcoholic father; he had substance-abuse problems of his own. He was a cold, ruthless youth who blamed his victims for his troubles: “That ——ing bitch, why didn’t she leave me alone?” a detective heard him whine to his father.

That is all sensational raw material for a book, but Wolfe, a journalist who has come to be a specialist on crime stories, turns it into mush. The dreadful buildup to the murder is lost in literary conceits. She attempts to draw parallel lives—first showing Jennifer’s broken home, then Robert’s domination by his mother—but the device is clumsy. The portraits of the attorneys, police, press and walk-on characters are so superficial they erode Wolfe’s contention that she went out and interviewed more than 200 people. And one can forget the fresh insights and deeper meanings one expects from a writer who has totally immersed herself in a subject; this might have been a clip job.

About the language: Wolfe makes a point of seeing anti-Semitism in Chambers’s use of the word “pushy” to describe Levin, yet she uses the term “jappy” (as in Jewish American Princess) to describe” some of Jennifer’s friends. Not nice.

The book is filled with awkward constructions and poor word choices too, but Wolfe’s last two sentences show just how far wrong she can go. Recording her own thoughts about Jennifer’s death, she writes, “That death had always seemed a sad and terrible waste. Now it seemed an even greater squander.” (Simon and Schuster, $19.95)

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