As with so many detective stories, the principal theme of True Confessions is human corruption. The irony is that it is Tom, not Des, who is fixated on a flawed world. He has sinned, and he is determined to root out other sinners. Des, who hears confessions, does little more than dole out conventional penances. Yet Tom is so hard on himself and others that he allows no room for restitution. He isolates himself, and he exposes others in his single-minded quest to solve crimes. His motivations are hardly pure. Frank Crotty resists Tom’s plan to frame Amsterdam, for he has figured out—as has Tom—who really murdered Lois Fazenda. Tom, it seems, is really out to bring down Amsterdam, no matter what happens to others.
True Confessions presents a world of corrupt institutions—whether it is the police department or the church. The novel seems to argue that corruption as such can never be exterminated. Tom’s tragedy is that, unlike most people, he cannot live with some corruption while doing his best to minimize his participation in it. He is an absolutist; it is all or nothing, pure or impure. In this respect, he resembles Mary Margaret, who withdraws from the world rather than confront her own implication in its evils.
The character who presents a middle way, so to speak, is Corinne Jones. Like Tom, she has a shady past, but unlike him, she believes in redemption, in love. She will take Tom as he is, recognizing his effort to do the best he can, yet he cannot accept her terms. His deterministic bent, his sense of original sin, prevents him from getting on with his life and from forgiving his brother’s hypocrisies.
Dunne uses the genre of the detective story to present a compelling drama about a world of difficult choices, of human personalities faced with the same fundamental choices no matter whether the realm is the political, the personal, or the religious. Crime—its causes, solutions, and consequences—becomes a metaphor for the human condition itself.