By Thane Peterson There's something about the dog days of summer that turns my thoughts to murder. Maybe it's the hot, still afternoon air. Maybe it's the rustling in the woods at night in rural Pennsylvania, where I've been for the past two weeks. But when I heard that a new collection of Dominick Dunne's articles on murder had just been published, I couldn't resist. I immediately drove the 25 miles to the nearest bookstore, bought a copy, and have been greedily devouring it ever since. If you're into true crime, this is great summer reading.
Dominick Dunne is a guilty pleasure for me -- and, I suspect, for a lot of other people. I discovered his column in Vanity Fair magazine during the O.J. Simpson trial and have been a Dunne loyalist ever since. I had already read most of the pieces in his new book, Justice: Crimes, Trials and Punishments (Crown Publishers, $24), which appeared originally in Vanity Fair, but I still got a kick out of them, especially the 134 pages (out of 337) on the Simpson trial. This isn't great literature, mind you. Dunne also writes the kind of best-selling novels that get made into TV miniseries, and that style seeps into his articles at times. But it's a testament to his artistry that you can reread pieces on a sordid episode like the Simpson trial and still find them gripping.
DINNER GOSSIP. The appeal of Dunne's articles is that they are less like conventional journalism than gossipy dinner conversation. His subject is always the same: murder involving the wealthy and well-connected. Many of the cases have been heavily covered in the press: Claus von Bülow's alleged attempt to murder his wife, the Menendez brothers' brutal slaughter of their parents, the suspicious death of financier Edmond Safra in his palatial digs in the principality of Monaco. But, in reading these pieces again, I'm struck how, as with the Simpson case, he always managed to make each one seem fresh.
Dunne, who is in his mid 70s, didn't start writing until he was 50. He worked in the movie industry before that and was very-well connected by the time he became an author. He's a bit of a name-dropper. His articles are full of asides about how he attended Ethel and Bobby Kennedy's wedding and actor Dennis Hopper's 59th birthday party (along with Uma Thurman, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, and the rest of the A-list). He's also wealthy -- or has a very liberal expense account. When he checks into a hotel in Paris during an attempt to interview Lily Safra, Edmond's widow, it's the Ritz. When he buys lunch in New York for Mark Fuhrman, the infamous detective of Simpson trial fame, it's at the Four Seasons. Wherever he goes, Dunne is constantly dining with the high and mighty, and relaying the gossip he hears.
His articles are full of passages like this one: "I think it's safe to say that at this moment in time O.J. Simpson is the most famous, the most discussed person in the world. Lady Thatcher was here [visiting Los Angeles]. She wanted to know about O.J. Mrs. Michael York, the wife of the actor, told me that at an ashram in India the guru had said, 'Tell me about O.J.'" These little tidbits have what I suspect is the desired effect. You're endlessly wondering, how does he know all these famous people?
GRIEF, OUTRAGE, AND INJUSTICE. Several qualities, however, raise Dunne's journalism above celebrity gossip-mongering. The primary one is his personal passion. He came to his favorite subject after his daughter, Dominique, a successful TV and movie actress, was murdered in 1982 at age 22 by a jealous boyfriend. The tragedy changed his life and gave him new purpose, he says. "Justice," the lead-off article that gives the book its title, is an account of the murder and subsequent trial -- in which the boyfriend was sentenced to only six years in prison, and ended up serving less than three. The article seethes with fury -- at the judge, the defense attorney, and his daughter's posturing boyfriend, who comes to court every day carrying a Bible but refuses to speak to his own mother after she has traveled two days by bus to show her support.
Probably as a result of this tragedy, Dunne's articles reveal a humanity that most other crime writing lacks. It's characteristic that, even in his grief, he can write with sympathy about the mother of his daughter's brutal murderer. Dunne is active in support organizations for crime victims, and never fails to deal sympathetically in his writing he with the friends and family of both the murdered and the murderer -- all of whom are victims.
Dunne is convinced, for instance, that O.J. is guilty. And because of that belief, covering the trial must have raised deep personal angst because, viewed in that context the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, is similar in so many respects to the murder of his daughter. Yet he writes with great sympathy not just about the families of the murder victims, Nicole Simpson and her acquaintance Ron Goldman, but of Simpson's own family. He notes, for instance, that Nicole and O.J.'s daughter, Sydney, spends hours at her computer every day chatting with cyberfriends. Having her father accused of murdering his wife and her mother, Dunne notes, makes it very hard for Sydney to make flesh-and-blood friends at school.
THE BUTLER'S TIP. Dunne's articles also have an appealing upstairs-downstairs quality. The rich, of course, are attended by legions of servants and hangers-on, and are prey to multitudes of scam artists intent on separating them from some of their wealth. Dunne is as much at home interviewing bailiffs, chauffeurs, and grifters as he is gossiping with society types. At one point, a butler tips him off while helping him on with his coat. In Monaco, at work on the Safra case, Dunne quickly gets some interesting background from the concierge at the hotel next door. At a party at his home in Connecticut (he also has an apartment in Manhattan), the invitees include police detectives and their spouses, as well as fancy folk.
Dunne tends to become extremely partisan about the cases he covers, and he's often on the side of the little guy. He is convinced, for example, that Ted Maher, the male nurse accused of causing Safra's death, is being setup as a fall guy by the poobahs in Monaco. And he is greatly responsible for pumping up public (and prosecutorial) interest in the long-forgotten 1975 bludgeoning murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley, largely through his novel A Season in Purgatory, which draws heavily on the crime. Dunne is convinced that Michael Skakel, a neighbor kid, committed the murder and should be brought to justice. That neighborhood kid, by the way, is now a grown man, comes from a wealthy family, and is a nephew of Ethel Kennedy. (In a development that must have gladdened Dunne, a Connecticut judge ruled earlier this year that Skakel be tried for the infamous 1975 murder.)
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. We're living in very different times from the early 1960s, when Truman Capote researched and wrote In Cold Blood, the account of the 1959 massacre of Kansas farm family by a couple of drifters. It may be the greatest American crime book ever written.
These days, even someone with the talent to match the late Capote probably couldn't duplicate the deep and probing reporting of In Cold Blood. Every bit player Dunne interviews -- from lawyers to jurors to drug dealers -- seems to have a public relations rep, a TV deal, and a book project in the works. And Dunne is often competing with tabloid journalists who pay for information, something mainstream publications like Vanity Fair won't do. Dunne's accomplishment is to show us our own era, in all its posturing, hypocrisy, and confusion, in the extreme circumstance of murder. He also never loses sight of his main point: That someone has been killed, and someone has to pay. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online