The murder of Maria Marshall was the most-talked-about killing here since a woodsman was slain by his wife's lover 103 years ago, according to town historian Pauline Miller.
The book about the murder, Blind Faith, is the most-wanted in the modern history of Ocean County.
Fact, fiction or gossip, Toms River can't get enough.
The local library ordered 115 copies of Blind Faith - and all 115 were checked out immediately last month, with 650 people on a waiting list. Two bookstores in the Ocean County Mall sold more than 1,500 copies in a few weeks. Supermarkets are selling hundreds of copies.
And it even has some of the most prominent citizens in town playing "20 Questions," trying to figure out who's who in the book. (McGinniss changed many names "to protect privacy" but says all the events are true.)
Here is what Blind Faith says:
* The values of Toms River are embodied in Rob Marshall (identified by his real name in the book), former head of the local United Way, who had his faithful wife, Maria, murdered so he could collect $1.5 million in life insurance, pay off deep gambling debts and shack up with the town's "little miss hotpants," a neighbor's wife.
* Lawyer "Raymond DiOrio," the most powerful politician in Ocean County, who briefly defended Marshall, steered the prosecution's investigation away
from "little miss hotpants" to hide DiOrio's own close friendship with her and possible ties to certain disreputable figures. The implications are without documentation.
"Everyone here knows that 'Raymond DiOrio' is supposed to be state Sen. John Russo," says Helen Fitzsimmons, an editor at the Ocean County Observer.
Russo, a Toms River Democrat and president of the New Jersey Senate, did briefly defend Marshall. But he flatly denies the book's allegations and refuses to say whether the book influenced his decision not to enter the Democratic primary race for governor in late January, two weeks after Blind Faith was published. The controversy surrounding the book even prompted Gov. Kean to call for a State Police investigation, which found the allegations ''unfair and without merit." Russo is considering a libel suit against McGinniss.
The book describes Toms River - sometimes fondly called "River City" and ''Peyton Place" by local residents - as an ugly, overdeveloped, amoral exurban vacuum inhabited by snobby, shallow, greedy hustlers who can't get enough gossip surrounding the murder. Their hollow, boring lives are lived, McGinniss says, at a "mini-series level," but life here was a "mini-series without an event . . . until the night Maria Marshall was murdered."
Blind Faith has Toms River in a blind fury.
THE TRYST MOTEL
"I'd like to get a hold of this guy and go a few rounds with him," said John Bowman, who works at the Best Western Motel in nearby Lakewood, identified by name in the book as the place where Marshall and "Felice
Rosenberg," his lover, had their frequent trysts in Room 16.
Dismissing all the furor, professing no concern over noise made about lawsuits, McGinniss has returned to his home in a small college town in western Massachusetts. His book is the No. 2 nonfiction best seller on the Publisher's Weekly list. An NBC mini-series is in the works.
"Go into the Office Lounge in Toms River," McGinniss said in a recent interview, "and ask them what they think of that son of a bitch Joe McGinniss."
McGinniss arrived in Toms River on a cold, gray day in March 1985 after a ''dismal drive" from Philadelphia on old Route 70, drawn by a letter from a local resident urging him to investigate the Marshall murder.
Rob and Maria Marshall were the "Ken and Barbie" of Toms River society, the letter said. Maria was the local Swim Team Mother of the Year, beloved mother of three all-American boys. Rob's insurance business earned him more than $100,000 a year and status at the Toms River Country Club.
But on Sept. 7, 1984, when Maria Marshall was found in the family car at a Garden State Parkway rest stop with two bullet holes in her back, the town's suspicions immediately turned to her husband, according to the letter.
THE TOWN ACHED
Marshall said he had stopped to check a soft tire and a robber had killed his wife and knocked him unconscious. Then police learned about Marshall's affair, his heavy debts and the insurance he had taken out on his wife the day before her death. The whole town, the letter said, knew who must have arranged the murder and ached for the three Marshall boys, who were blind to the truth about their father. Marshall was convicted and is on death row in Trenton.
The letter sat in McGinniss' desk for four months. After Fatal Vision, the story of a young Army doctor convicted of slaughtering his wife and children, McGinniss received many such letters. He threw most of them out. "I didn't really want to do another book about murder," he said in an interview last month in Philadelphia.
After Fatal Vision, McGinniss had set out for Los Alamos, N. M., to research an account on the making of the atomic bomb. But after eight months, he scotched the book, displeased with what he had written.
By early 1985, the Marshall murder was looking like a better story.
In the spring of that year, McGinniss, his wife and two small children rented a tiny cottage in nearby Seaside Heights "with a tiny little gravel yard." His dog, used to the open spaces of western Massachusetts, went crazy. "The kids went to the beach and got burned, but then what do you do?" McGinniss said.
"I can't understand people going there on vacation," McGinniss said. ''The Bruce Springsteen crowd is great to listen to songs about, but living down there is something else. . . . It was horrible, dismal. I hated it."
He hated it so much he called his agent and said he was thinking of abandoning the book. He didn't think he could bear being in Toms River long enough to finish it. Stay with it, his agent said. After two months, McGinniss returned to Massachusetts. He hired a young researcher, a former student of his, to live in Toms River for the fall and winter, to research local history and social mores and to keep in touch with the case.
In January 1986, McGinniss returned to Toms River to cover Marshall's trial. As he tells it, in less than a day he was transported from a luxury hotel on Miami Beach, where he was interviewed by the Today show about the Fatal Vision mini-series, to "a Days Inn in Mays Landing with no food but coffee and jelly doughnuts." Barely able to stand it, McGinniss bought a radar detector and raced the six-hour drive back to Massachusetts almost daily while covering the three-month trial. After Marshall was convicted of arranging his wife's murder and sentenced to death, McGinniss returned to Toms River to interview the teenage Marshall boys, whose pain and coming to terms with their father's guilt are the focus of the book.
McGinniss also tried to answer the question "How can a guy be in town for 20 years, someone so prominent and highly regarded, and two days after his wife is killed, everyone says he did it? What kind of superficial town is this?"
The author, of course, could not share most of these thoughts with the local residents while some of them were treating him like visiting royalty. Influential people found him a house to rent, invited him to their homes for dinner, asked McGinniss, a gifted storyteller, to tell them all about Fatal
Vision. When Blind Faith arrived here in mid-January, almost everyone rushed out to buy a copy.
Then they got to Chapter 3.
Chapter 3 says that Toms River is too far from New York and Philadelphia (about 60 miles) to be hip, yet too close to exude any rural charm. The town, McGinniss wrote, is a metaphor for the materialistic '80s, peopled by mindless retirees and '80s Babbitts imitating life as a beer commercial, aimlessly wandering local malls to cover "an emptiness at the core of their lives that only possessions could fill."
As for history, there is no Tom, and there is no river, only an estuary polluted blood-red by the chemical company whose executives founded the country club in the '50s. The equivalent of the Pilgrims' landing for Toms River was the 1967 Newark, N.J., riots, when white people "jumped in their cars and sped down the (Garden State) Parkway until they found an exit where they didn't see any black faces." The country-club building appears to be made of Legos, and the golf course has only nine holes. Every "franchise restaurant East of the Mississippi" has a home here. And there isn't even decent FM reception.
"In Toms River, you were what you drove, you were what you wore, you were where you lived - no matter how heavily mortgaged you were," McGinniss wrote, adding that it's a place where decent people "have to apologize for being
In case anyone missed the point, McGinniss went on Larry King's show and said Toms River was the worst place he had ever been in his life.
The local librarians are still laughing about the woman from Toms River who called in and said, "No one in Toms River will want to read that trash."
"McGinniss got it wrong."
The speaker is Seymour Kagan, 47, a Toms River lawyer, lunching with his partner, Franklin Berry, 53, a fifth-generation Toms Riverite. They're sitting in the Office Lounge, where local movers and shakers have met for 17 years.
"He's taken Rob Marshall's warped values and applied them to a whole community. It's absurd, a hatchet job," Kagan said. "And nobody turned on Marshall. Rob Marshall was always a jerk, a jerk and a half. Pompous, officious and arrogant."
McGinniss implies not only that Russo improperly influenced the Ocean County prosecutor but also that the prosecutor at the time, Edward Turnbach, agreed to downplay parts of the investigation in exchange for Russo's helping him be appointed a Superior Court judge.
Turnbach, who was appointed a Superior Court judge in Ocean County in May, refused comment last week but denied the allegations in a recent issue of the New Jersey Law Journal.
The talk of Toms River also is the talk all over New Jersey.
Newspapers have written extensively about the book's innuendo, and even the New York Times weighed in with a discussion of the limits of nonfiction.
Col. Clinton Pagano, head of the State Police, said he conducted his own, if brief, investigation and determined that Russo had done nothing wrong. The current Ocean County prosecutor said the Marshall investigation was proper and would not be reopened.
Across town, Rodin Lightbody, town committeeman, planner, police commissioner and former mayor, is red with anger over Blind Faith's description of his town as mindlessly in pursuit of status.
"The mayor of this town," he says emphatically, meaning himself, "drives two used cars. A 1982 Lincoln and a 1983 Cadillac."
Ocean County (population 420,000) is growing faster than any county in New Jersey and, by some measures, any county in the United States, Lightbody says proudly, and by the year 2000 will be bigger than Boston. Four new hotels are being built. New restaurants are opening, it seems, every month.
"We just got a White Castle," Dover Township Detective Ed Henry said proudly. "Now we have one of everything."
McGinniss, in the recent interview, dismissed the furor over his book.
"In a town of 75,000 people, obviously everyone doesn't share the same values, but there was a general sense that possessions make the man - you are what you drive, you are where you live. The lost world of exurbia."
" . . . They should be more upset about what happened to the Marshall boys than what a book says about their country club."