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Justice: Crimes, Trials and Punishments By Dominick Dunne Random House of Canada, 337 pages, $36 Readers of Vanity Fair will be familiar with the essays collected in Dominick Dunne's "new" non-fiction offering. Anybody who's been awake during any part of the past two decades will be familiar with the cast of characters in these pieces about murderers and the trials that sometimes bring them to justice: Claus von Bulow, Lyle and Erik Menendez, O. J. Simpson -- above all, O. J. Simpson.

Though there's an intriguing introduction, where Dunne explains how and why he left Hollywood to become one of America's top writers, there is little to make this more than a mere reprinting of articles published over the last 20 years. There's no organized attempt to link the various murder cases Dunne has covered; no overview of crime in the world of the rich, the famous and the beautiful, which is the only world Dunne cares about; no comment on the age in which we live and the values that inform it. Who cares?

Dunne is a master storyteller, and like the child who has heard Jack the Giant Killer nightly, we dutifully sit at Dunne's feet and let him spin the old tale one more time: the story of the little guy who slays the big one. Little guy black; big guy white. Little guy small, like the Menendez boys; big guy big, like their Dad. Little guy poor, like Canadian Wayne Lonergan; big guy rich, like New York brewery heiress Patricia Burton, whose father had been Wayne's boyfriend before Wayne married her and then beat her to death with a candlestick in 1943.

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Every criminal trial is full of mystery, drama and irony. Any crime reporter can get the details. Most good ones can scratch the shallow surface of fact to reveal the desperation that underlies all crime. But only the keenest and most seasoned observers realize that the true drama is not acted out in the prisoner's dock, on the witness stand or the bench. Court officers are trained to pay attention to the potentially most volatile people in court: the friends and family of the victims and the relatives of the accused.

Dunne never takes his eyes off these people, either. In court, he watches Simpson's mother and mother-in-law trying to preserve the rituals they once effortlessly shared. "Mrs. Brown showed Mrs. Simpson some snapshots of Justin Simpson's sixth birthday party. . . . Then she said to her about their mutual grandson, 'He has the loveliest eyes.' "

Dunne well knows that a courtroom soon becomes claustrophobic and the faces of all present begin to cloy with their unrelenting familiarity. So he shifts his scene often. To "the sumptuous Simpson estate. . . . There were fresh flowers, fires burning in two fireplaces . . ." To the boudoirs of wealthy victims: "In the room where [Patricia Burton]was murdered were fourteen rings set with emeralds, jade, rubies and diamonds . . ." To Monte Carlo, Cannes, New York and even Toronto, where, after serving 22 years of his 35-year-to-life sentence, Lonergan, a former RCAF cadet, ended up as long-time companion to one of Canada's most-loved female comics (Barbara Hamilton) before dying of cancer on New Year's Day, 1986, at the age of 67.

Show business is never far from the mind of Dunne. His is "history" told via tidbits overheard at cocktail parties, gossip garnered through private lunches and private glances. He's the doyen of hearsay. If he can't say a thing is true, he can at least say that he heard it. Of the arsonist's murder of banker Edmond Safra in Monaco, he states, "A lady I know in Paris, who used to be a great friend of Lily Safra's, told me at the Cafe Flore that an incendiary object had been thrown into the penthouse. Even if that was only her surmise, it might explain the raging inferno that erupted."

Dunne depends always on who he knows to lend credence to what he knows. With one notable exception. The best essay is about the trial of the killer of Dunne's own daughter, Dominique. Like a good witness who establishes his credibility at the outset, he tells this story first. It somehow makes all the glamorous stories that follow more tragic, more profound and more believable because they are told by a real insider.

Which is good. Because one does tire of the hearsay, the startling details constantly and gratuitously dropped into Dunne's ear. Such information-gathering becomes annoying. Though, as I was writing this review, I ran into a Canadian comedian who knew Wayne Lonergan for years. He said Lonergan was a quiet, gentle man who didn't mind his comedienne girlfriend's nickname for him, which was "Killer." He also dropped into my ear the tidbit that Lonergan once privately taught English as a second language. One of his pupils was Lucky Luciano.

So it goes. Rosemary Aubert, author of the Ellis Portal mystery series, is a Judge's Deputy in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

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