Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?

I’ve had many reasons to think of St. John.

One of the most persistent reasons presents itself whenever I read a mystery novel. The need arises to compare the cops who appear in the novel to St. John.

In recent years, I’ve had the privilege of looking over Jane Howatt’s shoulder as she prepares a can’t-resist proposal for her memoir of how she met St. John, and drew me into their remarkable collaboration.

I think of St. John every time I eat at Taylor’s Steak House on Eighth Street, where, out of habit or nostalgia, I order a steak sandwich and a Molly salad. I could never stand the Seagram’s Seven he favored.

And of course I think of St. John every time I pick up a copy of the novel under review this week. Tom Spellacy and Frank Crotty, the primary detectives in John Gregory Dunne’s novel, “True Confessions,” sound like St. John. They sound like cops, think like cops, and most important of all, their behavior is utterly cop-like. I don’t think St. John was a racist. I don’t think Spellacy and Crotty are any more or any less racist than the attitude of their time and place, the Los Angeles just after World War II, which author Dunne sets in perfect pitch perspective as a fictionalized morality tale based on a major real-life crime that gripped Los Angeles and the nation.

January of 1947. Los Angeles, near the Memorial Coliseum. The hideously mutilated body of Elizabeth Short is found in an empty lot, and the search for her killer begins. Quickly, the cops and the Hearst papers began calling the deceased The Black Dahlia. True crime books have been written about the case, and at least two movies used it as a thematic trampoline. To this day, the case is unsolved; suspicions hover like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

In fiction, things get solved, either directly or by implication. In life, things are more likely to reflect the ambiguity that is so much a part of the human condition. In writing “True Confessions,” John Gregory Dunne grabbed the brass ring, a keeper, yes, even an icon. It’s that simple and that straightforward.

I only think about Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia,” when I reread something as piercing and memorable as “True Confessions,” or when I happen to turn left off Castillo, and edge past the Santa Cruz Market. Directly across the street is a neat, shady clutch of small, tidy bungalows, set upon a well-kept lawn. There, at 321 Montecito Street, Elizabeth Short lived for a time, improving her game before moving to her destiny in Los Angeles.

Dunne brings these events to a convincing and dramatic boil, mixing the real events within the crucible of his imagination, bringing in aspects of his own experiences and emotional range. Tom Spellacy, the “True Confessions” detective, has a brother, Desmond, every bit as much on the rise in his profession, a priest in the Catholic Church, as Tom is in the monolithic LAPD. Their lives intersect over the investigation into the mutilation murder of “The Virgin Tramp,” a case paralleling “The Black Dahlia.”

Perhaps it is a bit of a push to remind you of the competitive edge between John Gregory Dunne and his brother, Nicholas, but when Tom and Des appear in the same scene, there is a tangible bite and edge that adds to the momentum of the implication-laden investigation at hand. Murder is at the top of the investigation, but the subtext is hypocrisy, betrayal, and cover-up, bouncing like a piñata at a Christmas party.

I am reminded of St. John from the very first scene in “True Confessions,” where, in a scant three pages, Tom Spellacy, long retired from the LAPD, meets his old partner, Frank Crotty for lunch. It is a lovely, dramatic introduction to the time, place, and theme, with Crotty going on about “the old days,” and how inexorably things have changed to the point where Los Angeles even has an African-American mayor.

Two old partners, eating lunch, reminiscing about a past that had meaning for each.

“I made a pass at the check.” Tom tells us, “but not serious enough to fool him: he was the visitor in from the desert, after all. I get along good – the pension from the department, the social security, some savings – and I could handle lunch in a Chinese restaurant, but Crotty, he looked like he could handle it better. He always liked Chinese restaurants, Frank. They were cheap, he always used to say. Which meant he ate on the cuff. A holdover from the days he used to work Vice in Chinatown. A twenty in a fortune cookie and Frank would let the Mah-jongg game in the back survive for another month. Live and let live. It was the same with Frank’s suits. He knew the head of security out at Warner Brothers and Crotty would buy Sidney Greenstreet’s old suits after every picture for a dollar each. Which was why he usually dressed in white, Frank.”

The talk quickly borders on the dangerous, and in defense, Tom suddenly “was tired.”

“You think about it then?”

And Tom ends chapter one with: “Occasionally.”

You’re in to stay with the first line in chapter two: “Actually I think about it all the time.” And suddenly we are with Tom twenty-eight years ago, at the crime scene, where everything began to come apart.

St. John had LAPD detective shield #1. Among others, he brought in the Hillside Strangler. What kind of a legend drinks Seagram’s Seven? There’s a good deal of St. John’s authenticity in Tom Spellacy, the real difference between the two was that St. John didn’t have the one or two weak moments Tom had; St. John wore hats and awful ties, but he never bent. One of the first cases St. John worked as a detective was “The Black Dahlia.”

The essential questions Dunne asks in this novel are: which of the two brothers – Tom, the cop, or Des, the monsignor – bent the most, and to protect whom?

It would be a spoiler to tell you what happens to Crotty, but when you get there, you’ll love it. Not bad for Des, either. And Tom? “As for me,” he says, “I’m in the pink. I’ll be seventy-two next week.”

John Gregory Dunne didn’t make it that long; he went at seventy-one in 2003.

St. John made it to seventy-eight.

In a lovely, tidy and poetic way, they all live in this resonant and memorable novel.