True crime, childhood memories, social criticism, and a personal quest for self-revelation jostle awkwardly in this occasionally impressive, but more often confusing, debut from Imbrie (English/Vassar). At age 12, Lee Snavely, bright, beautiful, and daring, wanted nothing more than to be a doctor like her late father. Fewer than 13 years later, having gone from school dropout to battered wife, drug addict, petty thief, and prostitute, she fell victim to a sociopathic serial killer. Haunted by the circumstances of Lee's death, Imbrie, her best friend in the seventh and eighth grades, set out to retrace the paths that led Lee and her murderer, Gary Taylor, to their violent meeting. The story of that search--and especially its effect on the author--becomes the dominant theme here. ``It could have been happening to me,'' Imbrie says, in a narrative that skips from cleareyed reminiscence of growing up in bucolic (and restrictive) Bowling Green, Ohio, through the author's search for the facts of the case, past a tense three-chapter dialogue with her own mother (the setting for an unsparing vision of Lee's troubled young adulthood), and up to the crime itself and an imaginary discussion in which Imbrie expresses her gratitude (``My memory of the steps you took...helped me grow up'') to the friend she barely knew after the age of 13. Thrown into the mix is lots of tortured symbolism about the devil (lurking to snare the small-town souls who ``traded away knowing for safety''), along with a heavy-handed critique of sex roles in contemporary America: Men, from Imbrie's distant clergyman-father to the murderer who admits ``it made me happy'' to kill women, don't fare very well here--but, then again, neither do variously overprotective or negligent, if victimized, mothers. Despite some strong writing: a muddle that obscures the tragic life that should be, yet never quite is, at its center.