"This is the story of parents and their children . . . ," Levine begins, thus indicating that he will give us a wide-angle view of the 1975 murders of Jim and Naomi Olive by their daughter, Marlene, and her boyfriend, Chuck Riley. Levine wants to tell us "what the murders said about the surrounding community, the warring worlds of parents and their kids."
This, in effect, puts sober brackets around what was a sensational case (the mention of it in John Godwin's "Murder USA" played up the element of Ho rigkeit--Marlene's sexual domination of Riley; an account in a pulp detective magazine was entitled, "Bizarre Case of the Barbecued Family").
The bracketing provides a very effective way of reaching those who are reading for thrills as well as those who are reading for knowledge. Neither group will be disappointed.
Levine is aware of all of the ironies of his tale: the fact that the crime occurred in Marin County, Calif., in the area where "American Graffiti" was filmed. And that the same summer, "rumblings from the other side of the generational fault were heard when a mother in neighboring San Rafael murdered her two teen-aged children." He emphasizes, in his preface, the context in which the Olives, "a nuclear family set for explosion," lived.
Then Levine switches to the close-ups.
Lengthy interviews over several years, he tells us, and the hypnosis of Riley, moved from Death Row to the California Men's Colony, provided much of the detail. Levine seems to have left none of it in his notebooks. We get far more than we need to know, and some of it is awkwardly inserted:
"Marlene had to struggle to remove the [wedding and engagement] rings, for Naomi Olive had grown thick-limbed and arthritic since the time, thirty-one years earlier, when the rings had first been placed on her finger two weeks apart."
Levine calls this "specificity" and says he hopes it will "imply a larger picture, in the way that a faithful rendering of the giant's toes would indicate his stature," but, in fact, it is oftentimes just too obvious an attempt to gain credence by accretion. It's irritating, slowing what is a crackling good story.
Marlene, 16 at the time of the murders, was adopted by the Olives. Naomi Olive was erratic and alcoholic; Jim had been a likable, all-too-doting dad. They'd reared Marlene in Latin America, and when they came to the United States, just two years before they were murdered, Marlene "adjusted" by pill-popping, candy-style.
Chuck Riley was four years older than Marlene, a fat kid who had never had a girlfriend before Marlene. He grabbed at glamor, though, first by doing 360s on the California roads and, later, by dealing drugs.
The Olives believed that Chuck was leading Marlene astray. Chuck, in fact, had been banished from the Olive home. It was months before he returned, at Marlene's bidding, to kill.
But did Chuck murder both Jim and Naomi Olive? He confessed to both crimes, then recanted, saying he shot Jim after Marlene had bludgeoned Naomi.
We'll never know. In his many conversations with Marlene before the crime--often in the presence of witnesses -- only Naomi seemed scheduled to die. Chuck was merely a consultant. "How hard do I hit her?" Marlene would ask. Or earlier, "What kind of things are poison?"
Levine's book is well-structured until this point and is again afterward. In dealing with the mystery of the murder itself, however, he fails. We hear Chuck advising Marlene once more, "I guess hit her as hard as you can. Harder than you've ever hit anybody," and then, on the following page, Chuck is hammering away at Naomi himself. Marlene, in this account, isn't even there.
Granted, this is the version to which Chuck initially confessed, but Levine doesn't prepare us for it. Instead, when our knuckles ought to be turning white, we're asking, "Huh? Did I miss something?" and flipping the book's pages to check. Because of the timing, this is a major flub.
It is also one that could have been corrected with a simple, "Although he was later to deny it, the story Chuck told was this: . . ." That, or something like it, would have left the crucial moment intact.
But the book doesn't collapse because the presentation of the murders is marred, because the murders are not the most horrifying aspect of the Olive case.
Worse -- if only because of the matter-of-fact way that Chuck and Marlene and, at one point, even a friend of Marlene's, go about it -- is the mopping up of the bloodstains.
Or the disposal of the Olives' remains. Chuck made two trips to the site where he and Marlene dragged, dumped and then burned her parents. Marlene later bragged about it, "adding new details such as the fact that she had tossed her father's favorite Panama hat into the funeral pyre on Sunday morning." Marlene's hatred of her mother was documented, deep and long-standing, but she and her father had been close.
And, though the judge ruled that she "did encourage, instigate, aid, abet, and act as accomplice in the homicides of her parents," Marlene, because she was a juvenile at the time of her arrest, was found guilty, not of murder, but "of violating Section 602 of the state's Welfare and Institutions Code--which could have been any crime committed by a minor."
In his preface, Levine quotes the editor of a local newspaper: "The morning after the case broke parents took a hard look at their children across the breakfast table and couldn't help wondering about the outcome of the next family quarrel."
Levine's "Bad Blood" will have its readers wondering the same.