Some reviewers and readers may find this hard to believe, but I will miss Dominick Dunne (“Dominick Dunne, Chronicler of Crime, Dies at 83,” by Enid Nemy, New York Times). He has always been a favored writer on my reading list. I would call him a guilty pleasure author except his writing and storytelling were always better than I expected from a novel featuring the cream of the society crop involved in the most deliciously despicable crimes. I loved to see how the other half does not get away with it in one of Dunne’s glitzy suspense stories.
Dunne’s novels always featured an outsider narrator, a character who keenly observed the doings of the callously wealthy and yearned to belong to their world, while knowing this could never be. This never stopped the narrator from sharing in the advantages of the moneyed set, until the American ton found a distasteful but necessary use for our narrator, or no use at all. At this point the narrator would come to know the personal tragedies, triumphs, and utter ruthlessness of the gilded set and find appreciation for his own humble beginnings and unadorned lifestyle. A little object lesson in the obvious there.
But so what? While no book group I’ve ever known has ever chosen a Dunne novel for discussion, these books are not merely dismissible bonbons. They might employ members of the upper echelons for characters, horse-country mansions for settings, and the most luridly reported crimes for plots, but the storytelling was a cut above the typical glitz ‘n glamour novels of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The author was very interested in how these crimes happened, the repercussions for victims and the narrator, and presented a slightly sympathetic side to the supposed villain. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for designer-dressed novels of café society served up with all the panache of a waiter passing a tray of the best caviar.
I thought it a bit ironic that Dominick Dunne died the day after Ted Kennedy. Dunne, who fictionalized the crimes, foibles, and peccadilloes of the rich and famous in numerous novels, seemed to hold the Kennedy family in high regard, yet did not believe them to be above the law. The Skakel/Kennedy families and one of their high-profile crimes provided the basis for Dunne’s bestseller, A Season in Purgatory (1993).
Dunne himself was no stranger to the effects and aftermath of violent crime. His own daughter was murdered and her killer served less than four years in prison. No doubt this tragic event fuels what I like most about Dunne’s stories. Justice was always served in his fiction, if it couldn’t be served in reality. And it was always served with style and wit.