A True Story of High Living,

Depravity and Murder

By Richard T. Pienciak

Dutton. 420 pp. $19.95


By Rafael Yglesias

Crown. 282 pp. $19.95

BOOKS ABOUT middle-class murders seem to materialize these days before the corpses cool. Occasionally such accounts are gripping and even illuminating, in the manner of Thomas Thompson's Blood and Money; but more ofter they seem a kind of literary ambulance-chasing.

In two new books based on the same high-toned homicide, novelist Rafael Yglesias and New York Daily News reporter Richard T. Pienciak pursue that ambulance down very different but equally murky streets. Yglesias's novel, The Murderer Next Door, meant to be a psychological thriller, is unconvincing; Pienciak's Deadly Masquerade: A True Story of High Living, Depravity and Murder sets out to be an exhaustive true crime account and becomes merely exhausting. Neither author seems to know quite what to make of his material.

The case in question is the murder of New Yorker Diane Pikul in October 1987. A Mount Holyoke graduate and mother of two, Diane Pikul had become an "assistant to the publisher" of Harper's magazine and hired a prominent divorce lawyer shortly before her stockbroker-husband Joseph Pikul beat her to death at their Long Island summer home. Joe Pikul dumped Diane's body in a ditch upstate after trying unsuccessfully to get his first wife's permission to bury it in her yard.

In outline the case is fairly simple and commonplace: A violent abuser beats his wife to death when she tries to leave him and take the children. As the case unfolded, however, it revealed many loony details -- like Joe Pikul's burial plan -- just shocking enough to seem meaningful. More important, the case displayed those little touches of class which are thought to enthrall and appall middle-class readers by identifying the protagonists as people they might actually know -- the beach house, the two lovely blonde children, the expensive private schools, the designer clothes. It matters that Diane Pikul died in a Ralph Lauren silk shirt.

On the other hand, the case is dark with tabloid titillation. It smacks of wretched secrets. The Pikuls met in Alcoholics Anonymous, recovering from past lives. After his arrest, Joe Pikul was strip-searched and found to be wearing panties and bra. Free on bail while awaiting trial for murder, he married a neighbor, then went after her with a hunting knife.

In addition, one particular of the case prompted public outrage and proposals for new legislation. While awaiting trial, Joe Pikul retained custody of his children, in keeping with New York state law which removes a child from parental care only if it is "abused." During custodial hearings, many argued that killing a child's mother is a form of child abuse, but the judge pronounced Pikul "a good father."

It's understandable, then, that writers would be drawn to the Pikul case. What's less understandable is why a story that seemed clear in the newspapers and in Sheila Weller's lucid discussion in Ms. magazine (May 1988) should become utterly opaque in the hands of book writers.

Richard T. Pienciak may have felt himself in competition with Weller, whose article is growing into a book at Random House. That would explain why he rushed into print with his notes and large hunks of trial transcript, omitting the traditional task of an author to reflect upon the "facts" and infuse them with some meaning, or at least some order beyond the merely chronological. It would explain why Deadly Masquerade is a book not so much written as assembled.

Pienciak's prose itself is the linguistic equivalent of paint by numbers; he tacks together second-hand bits to produce sentences like this: "In tandem with her failure at romantic bliss, the rest of Diane's life took a tailspin as well" and "The thorny dilemma ended up in the lap of Robert Wayburn . . ." Four hundred pages of this should persuade anyone that evil is not only banal but numbing. It's a dreadful paradox that lost in this muddle is a genuine event the author supposedly set out to memorialize: the real death of a human being.

THE VERY BEST books about fictional and factual homicide, from such great classics as Crime and Punishment and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Nicole Ward Jouve's The Streetcleaner have at their heart a moral inquiry prompted by just such a genuine event. In The Murderer Next Door, Rafael Yglesias seems sporadically to try for something of the sort. He misses, but at least the novel aims for interesting territory. Presumably Yglesias means to explore moral ambiguity, and particularly the question he probed in his last novel, Only Children, "What must one do for a child?" -- but ambiguity gives way to confusion.

The narrator Molly has risen above her background. The child of a drunken "failed lobsterman," she was raised by a feminist activist; and as the novel opens she is a lawyer, happily married to a psychiatrist and living in a Greenwich Village co-op just across the hall from her best friend Wendy. When Wendy is beaten to death by her husband Ben, lawyer Molly sets out to gain custody of their young daughter by a means that would occur to few women and even fewer feminists: cozying up to the wife-killer. At first Molly manipulates the murderer/father for the sake of the child. Gradually she loses sight of her objective; she comes to love the murderer and to compete with the child for his attention.

This plot actually echoes real life. After Diane Pikul's murder, neighbor Mary Bain dumped her husband and daughter to move in with Joe and become Mrs. Pikul Number 3. Yet in the novel when Molly divorces her husband, repudiates her colleagues and devotes herself full time to her new obsession, the transformation is utterly unpersuasive. Who could be such an idiot?

Sure enough, Molly is one of those apparently ordinary people in whom there lurks (all unbeknownst to herself) a sinister "dark side" waiting to leap forth and gobble up the personality. Like a humorless David Lynch, Yglesias seems prepared to believe that a dark heart beats just beneath every Peter Pan collar in Twin Peaks -- or Manhattan. But for good measure, he offers a cursory sketch of childhood poverty and abuse, and a good deal of psychoanalytic chitchat, as Freudian rationale for Molly's stupid fascination with the killer, especially in his cross-dressed feminine guise, and for some murderous impulses of her own. Of course, the great "deviants" of literature -- like Raskolnikov and Henry Jekyll -- are more than what their parents made them. But perhaps it's only appropriate that in a pedestrian novel of middle-class murder, breeding should turn out to be everything after all.

Ann Jones is the author of "Women Who Kill" and "Everyday Death: The Case of Bernadette Powell."