TRAVELS WITH DR. DEATH

And Other Unusual Investigations

By Ron Rosenbaum

Viking, 482 pp. $22.95; paperback $9.95

DR. DEATH is one James Grigson of Texas, a "legendary forensic psychiatrist" and "traveling expert witness for hire." When journalist Ron Rosenbaum tags along to hear him testify at three death penalty trials in two days, the busy doctor has already testified against 124 murderers, and impressionable juries have sentenced 115 of them to death. After years of examining killers, Dr. Death believes that most are not mentally disordered at all, but instead match the diagnosis: "mean son of a bitch." His specialty is predicting which of them is likely to kill again, unless first put to death by the state of Texas.

Ron Rosenbaum's specialty is hanging out with Dr. Death and folks like him, and suggesting as delicately as possible the problematical nature of their life's work. A meticulous and marvelously wry reporter, Rosenbaum also learns that Dr. Death's dad sold tombstones. "You could say that the Doctor is still traveling in the family business," Rosenbaum observes. "Not Death's traveling salesman exactly, but surely his jurisprudential franchisee." That kind of fillip is also a specialty with Rosenbaum, who invariably gives a twisted story one extra wrench.

But that's only one absorbing saga in this assemblage of Rosenbaum's journalism, originally published during the last decade or more in Harper's, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. Rosenbaum's "characters -- an array of seemingly self-invented people up to some "unusual" stuff -- are often lost. (Rosenbaum calls his narratives "factual stories about fictile people.") There are Captain Crunch and assorted "phone phreaks" circumventing Ma Bell. Bus loads of cancer patients making the rounds of "cures" south of the border. Richard H. Roffman, "the Woolworth of the publicity business," PR man to hordes of "unknown famous people." There are lots of corpses too: The Marcus brothers, the twin junkie gynecologists. A crack dealer. A movie star's hanger-on, bashed on location in Gila Bend, Ariz. Mary Meyer, another JFK mistress, whose murder officially remains "unsolved." JFK himself.

At his most ambitious, Rosenbaum undertakes what he sees as "the paradigmatic form the search for truth has taken in our time: the investigation of the investigation." This is a spooky enterprise, in more ways than one. Rosenbaum goes down a Dallas manhole in search of the "ghost" of Lee Harvey Oswald and up a Virginia high-rise to interview "The Blond Ghost," Ted Shackley, chief of the CIA station in Saigon from 1969 to 1972. He ponders "The Shadow of the Mole" -- the Big one, if there is one -- in American counterintelligence. With Richard Nixon's memoirs as dubious guide, he slips through some dark passages of the Watergate case. And he wades into history to investigate investigations of investigations of Hitler's alleged "Jewish blood."

These essays are impressive exercises in outbuffing the buffs, and if they are less than memorable it's because holding in mind the permutations of plot and counterplot, lie and contradiction, paranoia and coverup, and all the tergiversations thereof, leaves room for little else. Besides, what's to remember when a case is never "solved"? Rosenbaum himself terms these studies an "education in the varieties of contemporary uncertainty." (Remember when people believed that by conducting an investigation they could learn "the truth"?) These studies are a dispiriting lesson in contemporary "democracy," too, a stunning record of what goes on in the basement. Or at least they seem to be. On Rosenbaum's beat, you can never be too uncertain.

Rosenbaum is at his best, I think, in "The Subterranean World of the Bomb," a 1978 piece for Harper's that has been previously anthologized and become something of a classic. Nixon's decline and fall pose the terrifying prospect of a mad president -- with nuclear capability. Rosenbaum ventures from the Pentagon to SAC headquarters to the bottom of a missile silo to find out how a decision to fire is made, and whose finger is on the button. For my money, this is the best kind of journalism: informed and informative -- he takes us where we can't go ourselves, tells us things we never dreamed of, and sizes up a situation on which our very lives depend. It's personal, too, in the best sense. Our reporter proves to be nervous like the rest of us, concerned, and too smart to be taken in by the high-tech macho magic of the great phallic missiles. This piece alone is worth the price of admission to Ron Rosenbaum's traveling freak show, which taken all in all, is just as meaty and unwholesome a display as we are likely to get of life as we wish we could think we don't know it. Ann Jones's most recent book is "Everyday Death: The Case of Bernadette Powell."