Peter Maas Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's all so neat the way things work themselves out in Peter Maas's latest book, "Marie: A True Story," about a woman's lonely struggle against the corruption she perceived in the administration of Ray Blanton, Governor of Tennessee from 1974 to 1978. The villains are so contemptible, especially the two figures at the heart of a conspiracy to sell executive clemencies to convicts, T. Edward (Eddie) Sisk, the Governor's legal counsel, and Mr. Sisk's extraditions officer, Charlie Benson, with their utter inability to credit anything but venal behavior. And Governor Blanton himself, in Mr. Maas's handling, is almost a caricature of Snopesian conniving and arrogance.

And the heroine, Marie Ragghianti, is so brave and pure. How can we not root for her as, against all odds, she overcomes a catastrophic early marriage, severe illness and poverty to put herself through college, land a job in state government and rise to the prestigious chairmanship of the Board of Pardons and Paroles?…

It really does make a very good story. It's dramatic, it's irresistible, it's this summer's "Indecent Exposure," and one turns the pages of "Marie" as if one were brushing burning embers from one's lap. Yet one has to wonder, when it's over, if it isn't just a little too neat. Is there a legitimate dramatic connection between Marie's ordeal with a husband who kept beating her up, and her degrading, misogynistic treatment at the hands of Governor Blanton and his cronies? If there is such a connection, is it pertinent to ask, as Mr. Maas does not, what it is about Marie that kept involving her in such debasement?

Why is she so naïve about what is happening right under her nose (an effect that is perhaps unfairly heightened by Mr. Maas's having clued us readers into the corruption long before Marie catches on)? Why is she so inclined to forgive Eddie Sisk even after it's plain that he's at the heart of the clemency-peddling scam? Is there perhaps an unhealthy mix of the masochist and the zealot in Marie?

On reflection, I don't think so. She starts out life as a typical product of her time and place—a bright and attractive young Southerner deeply imbued with faith in family, God and her Roman Catholic Church. If she mistakes her husband's...

(The entire section is 589 words.)