One of the hottest news stories of 1982 was the sensational trial of Claus Von Bu low for attempting to murder his wife, Martha (better known as "Sunny"), by insulin injection. Sunny, the heiress to a $75 million natural gas fortune, lay in a coma as her husband was tried and eventually found guilty. He is free on bail, pending disposition of his appeal. She is in a coma and is never expected to regain consciousness.

I must confess that I was always somewhat baffled by the intensity of public interest in the case. Claus, who belonged to an indolent segment of THE VON BULOW AFFAIR. By William Wright. (Delacorte. 372 pp. $16.95) wealthy international society, was accused of trying to kill his wife for the oldest reason in the world--money. His way of life depended almost entirely on his wife's fortune, and he had fallen in love with another woman who had no real money of her own.

Throughout the trial and its endless attendant publicity, I was unable to see anything original about the case except for the method by which Von Bu low was accused of having tried to do away with his wife. I did not expect to be enthralled by William Wright's book. But Wright has written a fascinating social and legal history that not only clarifies many of the issues in the case but illustrates the deficiencies of daily journalism--in particular, television journalism--in dealing with a complicated running story.

Wright also casts considerable light on the mystifying phenomenon of popular sympathy for Von Bu low, symbolized in "Free Claus" buttons and T-shirts. He attributes this phenomenon partly to the sketchiness of news reports, partly to the popular suspicion that Sunny's two children by a former marriage had brought accusations against their stepfather in an effort to grab his share of Sunny's estate, and partly to the psychological process of identification with the accused rather than the victim.

Von Bu low's unsuccessful defense rested almost entirely on his lawyer's efforts to convince the jury that Sunny was so emotionally unstable that she had injected herself with insulin. As Wright makes clear in his exhaustive account of both the prosecution and defense testimony, it is extremely unlikely that any reasonable jury would have been able to acquit Von Bu low on the basis of the evidence. TV news reports paid enormous attention to the testimony of a "surprise witness," Joy O'Neill, who claimed to have been Sunny Von Bu low's regular exercise instructor. O'Neill testified that Sunny had mentioned insulin shots as a way of consuming large amounts of sweets without gaining weight.

The jury clearly decided to disregard the testimony when the prosecution produced written records from the salon proving that O'Neill had lied about being Sunny's regular instructor. She had, in fact, only conducted five exercise sessions with Sunny during a three-year period. The prosecution was able to produce another witness who had been her exercise instructor on 255 occasions during the same period. I remember O'Neill's testimony very well--it was trumpeted on the evening news--but I don't remember anything about the prosecution rebuttal.

In similar fashion, the testimony of Sunny's financial adviser--also sketchily reported on television--undermined any suggestion that her two children, Alexander and Ala, had a great deal to gain financially by seeing their stepfather convicted of attempted murder. Each already stood to inherit $14 million from their mother--and even more from their maternal grandmother. If Claus were excluded from Sunny's will, each would have inherited an additional $4.6 million--but only after it was locked up in a charitable trust for 21 years.

The jury gave considerable weight to the testimony of Sunny's personal maid, Maria Schrallhammer, about Von Bu low's inexplicable delay in summoning medical help when his wife failed to wake up, and to the fact that the only insulin found in the house was in Von Bu low's black bag.

Wright reserves some of his sharpest criticism for a post-trial interview conducted on ABC's "20/20" by Barbara Walters. He accurately observes that Von Bu low was allowed "to claim a number of things that had been laboriously disproved in court"--including the notion that the black bag really didn't belong to him.

Von Bu low never took the stand in his own defense during the trial because that would have subjected him to cross-examination by the prosecution. Walters concluded her interview with the question, "Did you try to murder your wife?" Von Bu low, in what was the least surprising response of the year to a question posed in an interview, answered, "I did not."

In a forum of his own choosing, Von Bu low certainly looked witty, self-assured and respectable. Wright's amply documented argument is best summarized by a line spoken of another (fictional) native of Denmark--"That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain . . . "