"Too Much Money" (Crown Publishing, 288 pages, $26), by Dominick Dunne: You didn't think the grave could possibly silence one of the most famous chroniclers of the rich and famous, did you?
Dominick Dunne, the author, television personality and Vanity Fair reporter who covered the trials of Claus von Bulow, O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith and Phil Spector, returns to the Manhattan playgrounds of the staggeringly wealthy in his new – and last – novel "Too Much Money," which was in the last stages of editing when he died in August at 83.
Here we are reacquainted with the now grayer – yet apparently no more wiser or less status obsessed – denizens of his 1988 book, "People Like Us." That means the return of the nouveau riche strivers Ruby and Elias Renthal, ladies-who-do-nothing-but-lunch like Lil Altemus and, of course, Gus Bailey, Dunne's fictional alter ego journalist.
Dunne's genius is how he puts this designer-clad, jewel-dripping world under a microscope, exploring the ways old money tries desperately to cling to the best restaurant tables and swanky invitations, while new money hopes for respectability and a seat at the table. It's a place where social antennae are always quivering, angling for gossip and advantage. In between the toes of these dinosaurs scurry a cast of put-upon maids, gossipy flower arrangers and striving single men who act as escorts for Faberge-collecting elderly women at formal events.
Dunne was never a traditional, by-the-book reporter, preferring to insert himself and his views into his work, and his fiction has always been inspired by real people and events. So figuring out whom his various old and new characters are based on may become a juicy source of gossip up and down the doorman buildings of the Upper East Side and at tony gathering places like Michael's and the Four Seasons.
The book opens with Gus in a miserable place on all fronts: He has cancer, he's being sued for slander by a congressman over the disappearance of a young Washington intern, and a book he is writing about the mysterious arson death of a billionaire has the widow upset and vengeful.
Fans of Dunne will easily see the parallels: He, like Gus, sought stem-cell treatments to fight his cancer, was sued by former California Rep. Gary Condit over comments he made about the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy, and wrote about Lily Safra, the international jet-setter whose banker-husband was killed in a suspicious fire.
As Gus navigates his various troubles, other plot lines emerge: Elias Renthal, whom we last saw serving time for insider trading, is released from prison and scheming to regain his perch in New York society. (When his wife is told he must inform the parole board whenever he takes out his private jet, Ruby is horrified: "Does that mean we have to act humble? Dear God, wait until you hear about the party I'm planning to give.")
Meanwhile, Perla Zacharias, the banking heiress and suspicious widow, is plotting her own assault on the rarified air of Park Avenue townhouses, armed with her $12,000 Hermes Birkin bags and lavish benefits. After a slow windup, all the various plots come to a fast, satisfying conclusion.
You needn't have read Dunne's first book about these folks to understand the second since most of his older characters haven't grown emotionally over the decades, insulated as they are from economic, political and social storms by oodles of cash. It's like they've been encased in amber, albeit very expensive amber.
And that's really the point: Dunne describes their hermetic world with a gimlet eye, neither stridently mocking nor slyly supportive. He didn't denounce or champion anyone as he raced against the clock of his own mortality. Dunne spent so much time rubbing shoulders with these real-world types that he lets his characters skewer themselves on their own platinum swords.