True Confessions, first published in 1977, is widely regarded as a classic American novel. Set in Los Angeles in 1948 and based on the notorious, never-solved Black Dahlia murder case, the story plumbs the depths of guilt and corruption — in the L.A.P.D., the Catholic Church, the construction industry, and in the relationships among them. Like the film Chinatown, which came to the screen three years before the novel, True Confessions illuminates the dark underside of Los Angeles at a time when corruption ran rampant and seemingly without shame. The book’s stature as a classic is underlined in an introduction by the brilliant novelist and screenwriter George Pelecanos, who writes of the author, “with True Confessions, he achieved what most novelists can only hope for. He left behind a work of art.”
True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
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Indeed. True Confessions works on many levels: as a crime novel, as humor (the story is often laugh-out-loud funny), as an example of masterful writing style, as an emblematic tale of a great American city, and as a novel that explores the human condition with sensitivity and deep understanding.
True Confessions revolves around the often testy relationship between two Irish-American brothers, Tom and Des Spellacy. Tom is a lieutenant in the L.A.P.D., a clever detective with a past history of corruption. Tom’s brother, Des, is a Catholic priest risen to the rank of Monsignor and the role of fixer and hatchet man for the aging Cardinal, whom he hopes to succeed. The two brothers come into conflict over their clashing agendas for a corrupt construction mogul who is one of the city’s richest and most powerful men. They have drastically different ideas about how to deal with the man.
The author writes with compassion. For example, describing bystanders in a poor neighborhood, he writes, “They weren’t bad people. Just too-little, too-late people. Has-beens, never-weres, never-will-bes.” The novel is rife with unsympathetic characters, but none of them can be viewed as evil.
The story opens and closes in the 1970s, when Tom and Des are old men, reviewing the wreckage of their careers. In between, two plots intertwine: Tom’s investigation of the shocking murder of a young woman, and Des’s attempts to strengthen the Church while scheming to position himself as the successor to the Cardinal.
The late novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne — he died in 2003 at the age of 71 — came naturally to writing. He was the younger brother of the writer Dominick Dunne and was married for nearly forty years to Joan Didion. True Confessions was adapted into a movie in 1981 starring Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall as the brothers.
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