Once upon a time, long ago—in the late 1960s, that is—there lived a young woman who, a recent college graduate, was on her own for the first time. She liked sex with men. She may have gauged it as a kind of validation, a stage for playing out childhood issues and sibling rivalries. Or there may not have been much thought to it at all.

We will never know. We can only guess at how Roseann Quinn sorted out these matters in her mind, how she adjusted herself mentally to transform from the gentle caretaker and teacher of deaf children by day to reputedly promiscuous barfly by night. We can be sure that she was troubled, and we do know that sometimes the men she met beat her. On Jan. 2, 1973, one of them killed her. A few monthLooking for Mr. Goodbars later, her presumed murderer hanged himself.

Judith Rossner, like countless New Yorkers, had followed Quinn’s terrible story as it unfolded in the papers (New York Daily News: “Teacher Victim of Sex Slaying: Battered With Statue of Self”). She had published three novels, and though none were successful, she was a talented writer, so much so that an editor at Esquire approached her to write for the magazine. Rossner suggested a story about the Quinn case, which had by that time acquired layers of sub rosa complication and implication.

The editor approved the story, but the magazine’s lawyers killed it. Rossner had painted a nuanced portrait of Quinn that, fully acknowledging her sexual habits, refuted any argument tha t she deserved her fate. Rossner’s Quinn was certainly no saint, but she was a creature of her time, an empowered woman who knew what she wanted. Had she been a man, she might have been admired for her free-wheeling ways, but as a woman, she was condemned for acting on her desires.

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The lawyers may have worried about incurring a lawsuit over the frank portrayal, though they told Rossner and her editor that they did not want to influence the conduct of a trial that would never occur. So Rossner took her manuscript and transformed it into a very thinly disguised novel, adding still more complications to the story of Quinn, now called Theresa Dunn. There is no doubt about what happens to the young woman: The novel, bleak and despairing, now called Looking for Mr. Goodbar, opens with a confession to Theresa’s murder. In the narrative that follows, Rossner worked in deft character sketches of various types of men who figured in Quinn’s life, some determined to save her, some clearly dangerous, all motivated by sex and power, all carrying the threat of violence.

Rossner’s novel, published 40 years ago, sold more than 4 million copies. Two years later, it became a hit film starring Diane Keaton and Richard Gere. Rossner turned to writing full-time, but she did not recapture its lightning in her subsequent novels, most of which also turned on questions of sexuality and relationships between men and women that almost never worked out. (“My abiding theme is separations,” she said.) She died 30 years after her book appeared, having added a catchphrase to the language that remains current, and sadly so.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.