The brutal 1980 murder of retired Reader's Digest editor Eleanor Prouty in West-chester County, N.Y., by two inmates of a ""child treatment center"" down the road, is pumped up into a ""modern American tragedy"" by Digest writer Velie. Ironically, Prouty's death was in part the result of her own generosity: she gave part-time jobs around the big white house she shared with her invalid husband to boys from the Lincoln Hall School, a reform school for delinquents and PINS (""persons in need of supervision,"" in juvenile court lingo)--one of whom (""That lady musta been crazy to let me inta the house"") spoke to a friend. The friend was 16-year-old Terry Losicco, a kid with a no-chance background (one of 13 children, in and out of a dozen foster homes before he was ten) who arrived at Lincoln Hall with a record of 50 burglaries and cultivated the image of a ""wild man,"" a tough white guy with a red afro who hung around with the black inmates. A few days short of release to a halfway house, Losicco planned to burglarize the Prouty home to raise cash (his long-range ambition was to become a drug dealer), but needed company. Almost by chance (""Hey, Dave, you wanna come and rob a house?""), he picked up David Hollis, a shy 15-year-old sent to Lincoln Hall on a PINS charge, who went along to boost his image. The Proutys were home, Losicco had armed himself with a piece of firewood, and it turned out to be more than just a burglary. Word of the killing spread among the Lincoln Hall boys, one of whom finally talked (the police, amazingly, had largely ignored the reform school link), and Losicco and Hollis were sentenced to minimum terms of 27 and 20 years, respectively. Losicco has adjusted well to prison (""I do my bid [sentence] real good. . . . People give me respect""), though it is a jungle (""Somebody wants to take your ass, you stab him right there""); Hollis has gone the born-again Christian route. Velie offers a wealth of detail and rings the predictable changes on the background-of-a-senseless-killing format: a closeup of the victim's warm relationship with her family; a search for Losicco's origins; fingerpointing at a system that still sends ""troubled youths"" to prep-schools-for-crime like Lincoln Hall. But his bottom-line message--it's a ""grand illusion"" to think that the state can succeed as a parent where the family fails--is getting to be a pretty old one. Workmanlike, but undistinguished.