This novel is a transparent attempt to capitalize on the popularity of its author's previous book, "Mommie Dearest," the best-selling account of her unpleasant childhood as the daughter of actress Joan Crawford. The only reason for reviewing "Black Widow" is to urge you not to buy it, since it possesses not a single redeeming virtue.

It is a tawdry book in every respect -- a striking example of what the American publishing industry can come up with when it is at its most cynical and manipulative. The book was published solely to make money; it's inconceivable that there could be another justification for its existence. It clearly does not matter to anyone involved with this operation that Christina Crawford is a one-book writer with only one story to tell; if putting her name on the dust jacket will sell books, then who cares what's inside?

On that dust jacket, we are informed that Christina Crawford is a person of impassioned humanitarian impulses: "During the past three years, Christina has devoted herself to helping abused children and their families . . . Christina Crawford cares deeply about the children society prefers to forget. She takes a stand for the values and principles she believes are fundamentally important."

What seems most important though, on the evidence of her two books, is cashing in on the notoriety of being Joan Crawford's daughter.

Since this is a work of fiction rather than autobiography, Crawford is free to invent. But there can be little doubt that "Black Widow" is merely another attempt to savage Mommie's reputation while simultaneously exploiting her. The Mommie in this book is named Vivian Simpson, and she is about as horrible and loathsome and unspeakable and vile as a mommie could ever be. She is in her late forties, but through the miracles of modern cosmetics and health spas she has retained the body of a woman many years her junior, a body that causes men to pulsate with hot desire. But inside that body beats the heart of a Torquemada.

As the book opens, her husband is being shot to death while on a hunting trip with her adolescent son; by Page 18 it is all too obvious that she financed his murder, though that is supposed to be one of the novel's major sources of suspense. When her son is falsely accused of stealing the headmaster's car in a boarding school prank and placed in a juvenile detention center, she allows him to languish there in hopes that he will disappear or die -- just so he gets out of her life. When her husband's lifelong friend and executor attempts to protect the boy and to administer the estate honestly, she threatens him with blackmail. Her first husband says of her:

"She is like the deadly black widow spider, poisonous, consuming . . . carnivorous. She is very sick, very cruel and absolutely lethal. She is not just immoral; she is without conscience as you and I know it. There is no way to reach her as a human being, no level on which to appeal to her."

Take that, Mommie Dearest! Or take this: "Benjamin looked back over their long years of association with nothing but regret. His only prote'ge' had turned out to be a dismal failure. His once-beautiful Vivian was now nothing more than a trained attack dog that had dangerously turned on her master, never to be trusted again. She was a killer bitch that had to be destroyed."

You're darn tootin', and Christina Crawford does her in to a fare-thee-well. She ends up in a big pool of her very own blood, right next to the fellow she'd hired to kill her husband, and who now occupies his own pool of blood. By the time she staggers to the final page Crawford has killed off all the bad guys and rewarded all the good ones. T.J., the son, is released from the detention center and into the arms of his long-absent, now-repentant father; his stepsister, Buckley, who so doughtily fought for his release, rides off into the sunset in a mist of joy. God's in his Heaven and all's right with the world.

The sappiness of the novel is exceeded only by its stupidity. When it comes to maudlin prose, Christina Crawford writes sentences that would make Rosemary Rogers wince:

"The agony of his pushing her away in favor of Vivian turned the girl quite mad for a moment. She was temporarily in touch with her own primitive being, devoid of thought, carried on a tidal wave of passionate love and desperate need. There was no reason to this moment, only terrible feelings. There were no words for it, only anguish and shivering. In that moment she was every terrified baby coming out of its mother's safe womb, she was eons of daughters adoring their father's strength and command over the known world, she was every woman abandoned and bereft. She felt herself drowning in tears she couldn't cry."

It's easy to see why this trash gets published, it makes money. What is more difficult to see is why it makes money. Can it actually give pleasure to any readers? There is no wit to it, no grace, no style. Readers coming to "Black Widow" in search of escapist entertainment -- a legitimate and valuable function of commercial fiction -- will find neither escape nor entertainment. But of course by the time they figure that out, they will have paid their money -- which seems to be about all that anyone at the production end cares about.