26 April 2019

True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne

A year or so ago I went into a frenzy and tried to purchase every possible John Gregory Dunne book I could. I was lucky in that True Confessions and Nothing Lost are still available for order at Indigo because the majority of his books are no longer being printed. So most of his collection has been sitting on my shelf as I take my time going through them / savouring anything related to Joan Didion. I decided to read this one because of the upcoming TNT series I Am the Night about the Black Dahlia starring Chris Pine and directed by Patty Jenkins. True Confessions is loosely based off the same murder.

I love Joan Didion's writing and I've always found a lot of similarities between her and her husband's prose. Dunne writes in a similar fashion with a painful amount of detail and interest in the morose. They write about similar characters - criminals, detectives, and those who blur the line between the two. Dunne's characters are usually more crass (employing lines like "go fuck somebody sideways"), but interesting all the same. I think he said it best for himself in his memoir Harp: "I just have a weakness for the grotesque, and its impact on the mundane."

He thought, I always seem to fail women, but even as he said it, he knew it was a lie. He never gave enough of himself to women to fail them. He knew it and they knew it. Which made it a self-congratulating lie at that."

True Confessions looks at a grisly murder in Los Angeles and splits its time between two main characters - brothers Tom and Desmond Spellacy. Tom is a detective working on the case and his brother Desmond is a Catholic priest. The two have very different dispositions but their involvement in the case starts to overlap more and more, and the book is essentially about how they navigate their relationship while all this is happening.

It was Tommy's kind of story. Tommy liked to tell stories about the lowest kind of human behaviour. Stories Desmond Spellacy was not likely to hear in confession. This time, however, the story seemed to hold an implicit warning."

John Gregory Dunne
I actually don't know a lot about the 1940s case of the Black Dahlia but am thinking about maybe getting into a true crime book about it. The TNT series comes to Crave mid March and I think that is where I will start. The case became so famous because the victim's body was found dissected at the waist. This is the major similarity in True Confessions, where a woman's body is found severed in half. Tom mistakenly gives the suspect the nickname "the virgin tramp" because of her good looks and because she had a rosebud tattooed under her pubic hair.

I assume the other similarities were just how obsessed the media became with these cases (real and imagined). I will say that after reading True Confessions I wouldn't say I have any understanding of the actual Black Dahlia case, so it won't spoil anything if you are looking to do your own research.

I will just say this now, I didn't really like this book. I have read three other Dunne books and have really enjoyed them, but True Confessions fell a little short. I have never been much of a fictional crime reader and I think that if you were you may find yourself enjoying this book more than me. But there was still a lot of components that I liked just because of Dunne's writing style.


One of those would be his attention to detail. Didion and Dunne are both amazing observationalists. They both have an uncanny sense of their surroundings and worked as journalists for years. Dunne has always self identified as nosy. He loves to look in other people's medicine cabinets and he'd often stop on his walk home to look at other people's mail. And this has always weirdly paid off in his writing. There's one scene where he describes a medical examiner's office and it made my stomach turn:

The County Medical Examiner's Office was in the basement of the Hall of Justice. In the spring heat the corridors were thick with the smell of formaldehyde. They walked through a cavernous autopsy room painted a weak green and then past the refrigerated compartments where the day's catch of corpses was kept [...] His walls were covered with enlarged photographs of battered babies and bashed-in skulls and mutilated breasts and patterns of stab wounds."

So overall this had some of Dunne's writing that I appreciate so much, but I just wasn't that invested in the story or the character's. I'm glad I read it and I'm glad I have it, but that's pretty much it.

No comments:

Post a Comment