MONEY TO BURN The True Story of the Benson Family Murders By Michael Mewshaw Atheneum. 406 pp. $19.95
BLOOD RELATIONS By John Greenya Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 358 pp. $17.95
THE SERPENT'S TOOTH By Christopher P. Andersen Harper & Row. 246 pp. $16.95
THE BENSON MURDERS may be a watershed of sorts, but it has less to do with crime and punishment than it does with journalistic competition and ethics.
At the beginning, it seemed the murders had all the ingredients for a big-bucks docu-drama. There was the rich family, heirs to a tobacco fortune, living in sunny Naples, Fla. There were some drugs, some sex, some sibling rivalry. Then suddenly one summer morning the family car blew up. Dead were Margaret Benson, 63, and her son Scott, 21. Her daughter Carol Lynn, 41, was badly burned. Within days, Margaret's other son, Steven, 34, was charged with the murders.
Blood and money, that's what we're talking. Tommy Thompson was the master of this kind of tale. His Texas oil characters were so messed up that we could wallow vicariously in their lavish life-style and still feel superior: Isn't it lucky, we could tell ourselves, that we're not that rich?
But how often do we want to read that kind of story? The Bradshaw murder in Utah sparked two rival books and two TV movies. The competition was tough. The publisher of Shana Alexander's Nutcracker fought to get the upper hand by paying the murderer for exclusive information.
For the Benson murders, we have not two, but four, publishers struggling for supremacy. (Pocket Books is coming out in September with a $3.95 paperback original, For Love of Money, by Mary Walton.)
All this competition has blurred the lines between crime and the law and journalism. It is no accident that a prime character in these books is Ric Cirace, a Boston lawyer who became a hovering presence at Carol Lynn's hospital bedside after the bombing. Why would a victim need such attention? Well, of course, there were questions about the inheritance, but there was also -- ahem -- the matter of book rights.
In Money To Burn, Michael Mewshaw deals directly with Carol Lynn's jockeying for a book contract. The author of seven novels, Mewshaw has created the best written of the Benson books, and he has worked the hardest at gathering information, obtaining revealing little interviews with the judge and defense attorneys that his rivals didn't get.
Mewshaw writes about how he himself chatted with attorney Cirace before the trial and recounts how Cirace asked him to write the "authorized version." Mewshaw says he expressed reservations about paying for information and he also wondered out loud how Carol Lynn could be an impartial witness if she were looking for a book contract, since she would get a much better contract if her brother were convicted than if he were freed. He also terms Cirace's asking price -- 50 percent cut of the book deal, 80 percent of film rights -- "unrealistic."
This brings us to John Greenya, author of Blood Relations. Greenya, who has collaborated previously on books with F. Lee Bailey and Anne Burford, also talked to attorney Cirace well before the trial. They agreed, Greenya writes, that Carol Lynn should not make a decision on a book contract before the trial because it might jeopardize her accused brother's rights "either in fact or just in appearance." Greenya covered the trial, writing some free-lance pieces for The Washington Post, and then worked out a deal (details unspecified) to share royalties in return for her "exclusive cooperation."
Greenya's problem is that Carol Lynn is both too close and too far from the murders. As a member of the family, she comes across as a whining, petulant participant in the sibling rivalries. Though Greenya has struggled to balance her lopsided vision, Carol Lynn remains the center of the book. The convicted murderer, Steven, is only a vague shadow.
MEWSHAW, it turns out, was better off without Carol Lynn's cooperation, but he doesn't leave it at that. He assaults her veracity at every turn, poking holes in her testimony, pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions, lamenting that the defense attorneys didn't ask her tougher questions on the stand. In Mewshaw's account, Carol Lynn is trying to get her brother convicted so she can grab the inheritance and a better book contract.
This is a messy business. Is Carol Lynn a subject for Mewshaw or a rival in the publishing wars? Mewshaw seems to be a man of integrity, but he's in a horrible position in this journalistic quagmire, and we have to ask ourselves if the author who didn't pay for information ends up as compromised as the author who did.
For an impartial opinion, we might think of turning to the third book, The Serpent's Tooth. But author Christopher P. Andersen has written a slender volume that is short on facts and long on white space. A veteran editor of People magazine and author of The Book of People and The New Book of People, Andersen has offered up a breezy little book that answers none of the questions raised by Mewshaw.
The problem for all three authors is that the Benson murders weren't really that interesting, not by docu-drama standards. The presiding judge thought it was a pretty routine trial, and the family wasn't even super-rich (the supermarket tabloids erred when they said the Bensons were connected with Benson and Hedges cigarettes). Worse, we never get to the core of the mystery: Steven Benson, the convicted murder, never testified at the trial, and he has not talked since to any journalist.
So this summer, if you're looking for a good crime story, it might be best to forget about the Bensons entirely and seek out Tommy Thompson's Blood and Money. Better yet, find the brillant book that was the inspiration for all these real-life crime books: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
John Dorschner, a staff writer with the Sunday magazine of The Miami Herald, won a National Headliner award for a group of stories that included an examination of the trial of entrepreneur Victor Posner.