Originally created 07/18/04

'Tarnished Eye' mirrors real-life slayings



EDINA, Minn. - Judith Guest's first book, Ordinary People, has brought her "one birthday present after the next," including a film version that won wide acclaim and several Academy Awards.

Not all of her experiences with Hollywood have gone well, however, said the notoriously slow-writing Ms. Guest.

Her second novel, Second Heaven, has been sold five times to the movies, but nothing has been made, she said. A movie version of her third book, Killing Time in St. Cloud, a 1988 mystery co-written with Rebecca Hill, also stalled.

"I decided that business is too frenetic for me. I can't deal with it," Ms. Guest said.

Still, her agent is shopping Ms. Guest's recently released fifth book, The Tarnished Eye, to the movies. Ms. Guest said she first thought of doing the suspense novel, based on real-life murders in her native Michigan, as a screenplay but ended up writing a book instead.

The Tarnished Eye (the title comes from a line in the novel Diana of the Crossways by Victorian writer George Meredith) follows a rural Michigan sheriff, Hugh DeWitt, as he unravels the slayings of six members of an upper middle-class family at their summer home. A father, mother, their three sons and daughter are gunned down, their bodies left to rot.

The fictional case parallels the unsolved 1968 killings of Richard Robison, his wife and their four children at their summer cottage in northwestern Michigan. Each had been shot, and the young daughter also hit with a hammer. Their bodies were discovered about a month after the homicides occurred.

Ms. Guest, who was born in Detroit, was living in Michigan at the time and remembers reading of the killings.

"It seemed so amazing to me that this many people could disappear from the face of the Earth, and they would have basically no idea of who did it," she said. As in the Robison case, in which no one has ever been charged, a possible suspect in Ms. Guest's book kills himself and leaves a note denying he killed the victims.

Although the book follows police procedure as DeWitt tracks down suspects, it weaves in family conflicts and sorrows - the sheriff mourning the sudden infant syndrome death of his son, an artistic son clashing with his father.

Such conflicts are familiar territory for Ms. Guest, who wrote of a family coming apart in Ordinary People. It became a best seller, then a hit 1980 movie that won the Oscar for best picture and netted Robert Redford an Oscar in his directorial debut.