The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One of the hallmarks of the detective novel is the use of suspense and of stereotyped characters. Dunne deftly delays the denouement of his novel by giving Tom more and more leads to follow, even as Jack Amsterdam carefully conceals himself by multiple masks of respectability. So frustrated is Tom that, in a key scene, he embarrasses Des and Armstrong at lunch by reminding Armstrong that he was once his bagman. As expected in the detective-story genre, Tom as detective is relentless. He is a deeply flawed character, and perhaps that is why he cannot abide others such as Amsterdam and his brother who profess to be pious. Tom recognizes the difference between his brother and Amsterdam, and Tom does go out of his way to help Des. Yet the hostility between the brothers remains.

Des is a fully rounded character. He realizes that his ambitions make him almost inhuman and mock his religious scruples. He wants to do good things for the church, but he is willing to cut corners and make compromises in order to satisfy the ruthless cardinal, who will support Des only so long as Des produces results. The cardinal and Des serve each other. Des will get his promotion so long as he does the cardinal’s bidding and does not embarrass him. Yet the embarrassment seems inevitable with a brother who will not quit an investigation that becomes inconvenient, and then humiliating, for the archdiocese.

Dunne’s handling of female characters is humorous and...

(The entire section is 478 words.)