Below Suspicion

True Confessions

by John Gregory Dunne
E.P. Dutton, 341 pp., $9.95

Transatlantic Blues

by Wilfrid Sheed
E.P. Dutton, 312 pp., $9.95

Although Roman Catholicism is a looming presence—one might almost say a major character—in both novels under review, it would be folly to attempt a serious linking of them on that (or, indeed, any other) basis. True Confessions is a scandalous romp of a book in which the Irish-American clergy and laity alike are (with token exceptions) lightheartedly depicted as blathering fools, worldly cynics, and sanctimonious or hardened knaves. They inhabit a busy world in which the only true god is the Deal and the most deadly sin is the failure of one conniving scamp to acquire the crucial information that might give him the advantage over another. In Transatlantic Blues, on the other hand, Catholicism exists primarily in the form of a bad conscience that bedevils the protagonist throughout, tempting him to discharge a voluminous load of guilt into the ear of the only confessor that will hear him—a Sony tape recorder. As entertainment, the extroverted rascality of the one wins easily over the ranting pseudo introspection of the other.

True Confessions is a good cops-and-priests story—sordid, raunchy, and often funny—set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. Though it derives its narrative impulse from the discovery of the bisected corpse of Lois Fazenda, a young semi-prostitute whom the press nicknames, with only partial accuracy, the Virgin Tramp, the book is not a suspense novel or murder mystery in the ordinary sense. Rather, it is concerned with tracing—interestingly and deftly—the “ripple effect” which the case has upon the racketeers, contractors, blarneying lawyers, glad-handing undertakers, whores, and the variously tainted members of the police force and clergy who populate this crowded work.

At the center are two brothers: Lieutenant Tommy Spellacy, who was once “bagman” in payoffs to members of the vice squad, and Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (“Des”), the golf-playing chancellor of the archdiocese, an accomplished fixer, and a close associate of the aging Cardinal Hugh Danaher, who, without illusion, relies upon Des as his “lightning rod, hatchetman, and accountant” in the management of his unwieldy domain. Tommy stands a chance of beating out the stupid Captain Fuqua to become chief of police; Des, with the Cardinal’s support, seems headed for a bishopric. Neither goal is achieved—thanks to the lines rippling and fanning outward from poor Lois. The lines keep crossing, and it is to the credit of Dunne’s plotting that the novel becomes neither a hopeless tangle nor an indigestible mess of coincidences. Both the pacing and the footwork of the novel are exhilarating.

True Confessions is written in a comical-tough vein that exploits the full resources of ethnic abuse and sexual slang that Lenny Bruce made shamelessly available to public entertainers. It abounds in references to harps, micks, coons, dinges, sheenies, Polacks, ginneys (an eccentric spelling?) and the like; to boffing, dipping, blowing, and sniffing; to leses, dykes, fags, and cunts. Dunne is thoroughly at ease with this exuberantly offensive mode, handling it as if to the manner born. The following passage—lifted from the interior monologue of Tommy…

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