Ever since her confessional ”An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life” made her a New York Times Magazine cover girl 20 years ago, Joyce Maynard has shown a good instinct for the main chance. Whether reporting for the Times at 22, vanishing into the New Hampshire woods for a time with the reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger, or making the intimate details of her subsequent marriage, motherhood, and breakup the topic of a syndicated newspaper column, she has attracted both admirers and detractors in roughly equal numbers. Fans praise her wit and intimacy; others find her work cloying and insufferably self-regarding.

For all its virtues, To Die For seems unlikely to win Maynard many converts. Inspired by the case of Pamela Smart, the New Hampshire high school drug-and-alcohol counselor who was convicted of hiring her 15-year-old lover to murder her husband, Maynard’s second novel handles the story like raw material for a TV documentary. Speaking as if to a disembodied interviewer, the murderess, her parents, her teenage accomplices, their parents, the victim’s family — a total of 25 narrators in all — take turns bringing the bizarre melodrama to life. Up to a point, Maynard’s technique succeeds brilliantly. In deft, parodic strokes she captures the screwball side of a tragedy that sounds as if it were scripted for a miniseries to begin with.

Rather than a high school counselor, Suzanne Maretto, Maynard’s femme fatale, is a part-time weather girl at a local cable-TV channel. Obsessed with fantasies of network glory, the ex-cheerleader conspires to murder her husband with the help of three misfit kids, figuring that the notoriety will advance her career. Even after she has been arrested, the murderess sounds as if she’s auditioning for anchorwoman on the Cliché Channel: ”One reason I always try to cooperate with the press, the way I’m doing right now,” she chirps, ”is because I’ve been a journalist and broadcaster myself, and I always planned a future in television. I owe it to Larry as well as myself to make that dream a reality someday.” Larry being her late husband, whose blood she was most anxious to keep from staining her new carpet.

So far so good. Maynard gets some parts of the psychopathic personality exactly right — Suzanne’s cunning, her breathtaking shallowness, and her insatiable need for attention. But the problem with To Die For is that Maynard can’t seem to turn off the gag machine. By treating almost all her characters with the same smirky condescension, she makes them uniformly contemptible-dumb proles who can’t distinguish between real sorrow and the crocodile tears of Phil Donahue.

Suzanne’s mother is a fool; her father a stuffed shirt; her teen lover, Jimmy Emmet, a semiliterate Alexander Portnoy. Even the murdered husband’s parents talk like fugitives from a detergent commercial. Lydia Mertz, the fat, pimply high school girl whom Suzanne manipulates into supplying the murder weapon, describes being sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend by referring to The Brady Bunch: ”I’m wondering if the Brady dad ever did anything like this. I can’t believe the Brady girls would let somebody put their finger up inside them. I can’t picture Mrs. Brady letting him put it in her mouth.”

It’s an old theme of Maynard’s, this notion of a nation immunized against its own humanity by overdosing on sitcoms. Readers may be inclined to wonder if it isn’t maybe the author who needs to unplug the TV for a while. B

To Die For
  • Movie
  • 106 minutes