IN A CHILD'S NAME

The Legacy of a Mother's Murder

By Peter Maas

Simon and Schuster. 378 pp. $19.95

PETER MAAS's In a Child's Name draws a nightmare portrait of a sociopathic dentist who was apparently unmoored by uncontrollable sexual appetites. In 1973 Ken Taylor married Emily Latrelle, only to desert her without warning when she was nine months pregnant for Marilyn Hope, an airline stewardess whom five years later he would attempt to murder. Next, while still living with Marilyn, who stuck it out even after a Navy psychiatrist diagnosed Ken as a "homicidal maniac," he began an affair with his secretary, Teresa Benigno, whom he eventually married, brutally beat on their honeymoon in Mexico and then savagely beat to death a few months later in their home in New Jersey. Along the way, he did large quantities of cocaine and amphetamines, had numerous affairs and one-night stands, placed ads in sex magazines, called sex phone numbers, reported his car as stolen after he had crashed it, slammed his pet cat against the wall several times in anger and embezzled $5,000 to $10,000 from two dentists for whom he worked.

Maas, author of The Valachi Papers, Serpico and Manhunt, has cast In a Child's Name as a thriller that basically divides into two parts. The first reports the effort to convict Taylor of murder -- one that involved bringing into evidence the earlier beating and attempted murder; the second reports the attempt, after Taylor's conviction, to get Teresa's baby returned to the custody of Teresa's sister and husband rather than to the murderer's parents.

In the course of all this, Maas pits Taylor's undemonstrative Midwestern Protestant family against the more emotionally volatile Sicilian Benignos of New York, to the Benignos' advantage. They come across as more fully human and accessible, less emotionally cold. After Ken's arrest and subsequent conviction, a nasty custody battle -- which consumes the book's second half -- took place between the Taylors, who tried illegally to adopt their son's baby, and the Benignos, who wanted Teresa's sister and husband to keep the baby.

Never is there any question where Maas's sympathies lie, and I don't believe they should have been elsewhere. He casts his book as a study in legal frustration. Here is a guy who deserted his first wife, attempted to murder his second, then viciously beat his third before murdering her. And it takes all the lawyers' efforts to get the earlier assaults entered into the record, in order to establish motive and win a surer conviction.

Then, after the conviction, it's another legal quagmire trying to keep the dead mother's baby with her sister and husband rather than let the baby fall into the clutches of Ken's parents, who still labor under the illusion that their son is wonderful and his deceased wife evil.

Maas writes a compelling, no-frills account of this legal and human horror show. In one particularly powerful scene he describes the police conducting a Luminol test in the house where the wife's murder occurred. Luminol is a chemical that reacts to the slightest traces of blood, giving off an eerie greenish light in the dark. "The chemists tracked {the glow} around the corner into the living room area and, retreating slowly now, spraying in front of them, they moved across the floor past the kitchen to the garage door and into and along the side of the garage . . .{The investigator} felt as if he were in a sci-fi movie. Initially, there was the same pale green light. It got greener and brighter. It began to glow. And through its luminosity he could see the trail of blood. The trail was solid, but with streaks in it, as though someone had taken a big wet mop and wrung it out and dragged it along the floor. The length of the bloody trail measured some fifty-five feet . . .Then one of the forensic men switched on the lights. And the trail of blood instantly vanished. It was as if Fausak had dreamed it all." NONETHELESS the book gets wearisome at points. For one thing, Ken comes across as a classic sociopath from the start -- that is, as drearily predictable. One day he's professing his undying love for his fiancee Teresa, the next he's asking his wife Marilyn to drop the divorce proceedings because he's considering reconciliation. Each successive girlfriend is "the best sex" he ever had. Caught in one lie, he retreats into another, more outrageous one. Confronted with irrefutable evidence that he committed the murder, he claims he caught his wife sexually abusing their five-month-old child. After a while, the sociopath's lies and nastiness become monotonous; they leave their own dully glowing radioactive trace across the pages.

As Maas explains at the end, he came to this book at a friend's request to correct an injustice when the Indiana courts, favoring the hometown team, stalled at giving the baby back to the Benignos after the dentist's parents kidnapped him. Maas initially wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that did apparently pressure the Indiana courts to move (finally) on the case in favor of the Benignos.

But such partisanship doesn't necessarily make for the most artful book. There's little sense in In a Child's Name of Ken as experienced by the women who, one after another, fell in love with him. There's no sense of his power, of his (I would guess) considerable charm, of his seductive qualities. Maas doesn't allow Ken to seduce us. And that is a mistake. This is not a question of giving Ken his due so much as giving the women whose lives he destroyed their due; of giving life, in all its painful complications, its due.

Michael Covino's most recent book is the short-story collection "The Off-Season." He has written investigative crime articles for California Magazine and the East Bay Express.