SALAMANDER: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders; Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts; Signature Books; 450 pages; $17.95.

There is something disconcerting about being in a hotel room far from Utah and turning on the local news to scenes of crime on Salt Lake streets. Somehow you know that any story big enough to make the news in Virginia or Texas is going to be around for awhile.Little did I realize, however, as I saw reports of the Salt Lake pipe bombs from my hotel room in Reston, Va., just how involved the story would be or just how long it would be with us.

Few people did. Even those investigating the crimes. But what appeared at first glance to be the result of a financial company gone bad turned out to be much more complex, much more devious. It was one of those stories so high-profile that everyone remembered where they were when the bombs went off, that everyone had an opinion as to what had happened, that everyone was talking about it for weeks and months after. And yet the story was so complex and convoluted that not even those closest to it knew everything involved.

Using a narrative approach and with meticulous detail, Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts trace the Mark Hofmann case from the bombings, through the investigation to the preliminary hearing, the plea bargain and the probation hearing, back-tracking to pull together the threads of Hofmann's background.

There are times when you have a hard time keeping track of all the players without a score card. There are times when you wonder if this isn't really more detail than you want. But it is compelling reading, and you are sucked in - both through the skill of the authors and by the power of the story. There are times when even though you already know what happens, you can hardly wait to find out how it all comes together in a broader context.

It is not a nice story. There's no question that Mark Hofmann was a skillful forger and consummate con man, able to fool not only his friends and neighbors but the nation's leading document experts as well. And it is no wonder that those friends and neighbors were confused and bewildered as events began to unfold around them.

"Salamander" answers the lingering questions of how: how Hofmann stole paper from old books and used doctored ink to create his documents, how he played his clients against each other, how he conceived and carried out his deadly bombings, and how, eventually, it all came apart.

Even more intriguing, the book addresses the question of why. Money was involved, of course, but greed seems not to have been the primary motivating factor. Sillitoe and Roberts peel back the layers to reveal a man living on two separate levels - not a split personality so much as a man whose public persona differed greatly from his private being.

All the time Hofmann was fulfilling the outward requirements of his religion - a mission, a temple marriage, an active ward life - he had no inner convictions of truth or rightness about it all. Inside, he had given up Mormonism at age 14. Outside, he continued to live as though he believed.

The subject matter of many of his forged documents addressed this dichotomy. It was his intention, he later said, to show people they believed in a fairy tale. He started out with favorable notions, then moved ever so slowly and deviously toward blatant falsehoods.

(The forensic analysis by George Throckmorton at the back of the book is a nice extra, taking a close look at some of these documents and providing insight into just how the forgeries were discovered.)

In addition to Mormon documents, Hofmann also dabbled in other areas of Americana. It was the highly publicized Oath of a Freeman, for example, that finally brought things tumbling down. When the Library of Congress did not buy the oath (not because they thought it a forgery, but because the price was too high), Hofmann's financial situation reached crisis proportions, and he turned to desperate measures.

There are some questions that the book does not answer: Just what did the nurse at the hospital overhear when Hofmann was brought in? (The courts ruled she could not be required to testify.) Just when did the defense become interested in plea bargaining. (Like many others, the attorneys seemed to be convinced of his innocence at first.) Who was the third bomb really for? (At the end, Hofmann said it was a suicide attempt, but his story changed from time to time. The authors present a credible case for the intended victim being one of the other document collectors.) There are some questions that may never be answered.

But this book probably comes as close to getting inside Hofmann's head and to putting the whole complex story together as completely as it is possible.

And in the end, you come away from the book with a deep sympathy for the victims and their families (including Hofmann's); with a great deal of respect for the investigators who pieced the complex case together, often breaking new ground in their forensic work; with admiration for the authors who have told the story so well; with nothing but contempt for the man who perpetrated the crimes; and with a satisfying feeling that in the end justice was served, that good in fact still does triumph over evil.