WASHINGTON — Apt timing could benefit a new book about a former intern murdered nearly nine years ago.
Publishers are preparing to unveil on May 11 a hardcover book investigating the life and death of Chandra Levy. By chance, prosecutors are simultaneously preparing for the long-awaited trial of the man they say killed the one-time Modesto resident.
The more-or-less coincidental timing could well boost interest in "Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery." The 304-page book by Washington Post reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz delves deeply into a 2001 case that at one time captivated public attention but has since waxed and waned.
"It's hard for me to judge how many people will buy the book," Levy's mother, Susan, said Friday. "It's pretty hard for me, as a mom, either way."
Scribner, an arm of the Simon & Schuster publishing house, certainly sees some commercial potential.
Famed reporter Bob Woodward has provided the marketing blurb, likening "Finding Chandra" to the Truman Capote classic "In Cold Blood." The publishing house invested in a cover that transcends the tabloid crime genre, with a photograph of a shaded park striking a somber chord.
The book itself expands upon a 13-part series originally published by the Post in the summer of 2008. With the help of literary agent Gail Ross, Higham and Horwitz subsequently landed the Scribner contract and took an extended leave from the newspaper to complete their work.
"I think they're good at what they do, and they've been up on this case," Susan Levy said.
As part of the orchestrated book rollout, Scribner has also asked Higham and Horwitz not to speak publicly until closer to the official publication date.
Levy read the original Post series but has not yet seen an advance copy of the book that Scribner is starting to circulate. Though she says she will read it, she likened the experience to the reopening of a wound.
Her daughter Chandra had recently completed a Bureau of Prisons internship and graduate work at the University of Southern California when she disappeared May 1, 2001. A year later, Chandra's skeletal remains were found in Washington's Rock Creek Park.
Following investigative missteps thoroughly detailed in "Finding Chandra," police and prosecutors named Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique as Levy's killer. Guandique's trial is scheduled to start Oct. 4.
The pending publication of "Finding Chandra" has itself been drawn into the Guandique trial, as his attorneys now cite the book as an example of the "voluminous amount" of media coverage that requires moving the trial out of Washington.
"Much of the local media attention ... has recounted information about the case and/or Mr. Guandique that ultimately may be ruled inadmissible at trial, but to which potential jurors may have already been exposed by virtue of the extensive publicity," defense attorneys Santha Sonenberg and Maria Hawilo wrote.
Part of the book reveals how investigative reporters work, a combination of drudgery and drama. Horwitz recounts how one unnamed source slipped her a thick manila envelope containing secret documents; she would later meet this same source "outside parks, museums and restaurants across the city."
Documents once meant to be seen by only a few people propel the story. Higham and Horwitz cite confidential law enforcement reports and case files. They also quote at length from intimate letters and diary entries written by flight attendant Anne Marie Smith, who says she had an affair with then-Rep. Gary Condit.
Condit plays a central role in the book, though he was never named as a suspect or target in the Levy murder investigation.
The authors unflinchingly detail Condit's secret relationship with Levy, which is what made Levy's disappearance such a hot topic in the first place. At the same time, their tone is not unsympathetic toward Condit, who granted them a rare interview.
The relationship between the married congressman and the former intern is a big reason why Chandra Levy's disappearance has resonated with readers — and, presumably, publishers. At the same time, the authors drive home the sobering conclusion that the initial attention paid to Condit hindered the long-term effort to find the real killer.