First edition (publ. Crown Books)
First edition (publ. Crown Books)

A Season in Purgatory is a 1993 novel by Dominick Dunne. It was inspired by the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley, for which Ethel Skakel Kennedy's nephew Michael Skakel was eventually convicted. Dunne became fascinated with the story after covering William Kennedy Smith's 1991 rape trial for Vanity Fair.[1]

The hardcover edition (ISBN 0-517-58386-0) was released by Crown Publishers on April 13, 1993. The paperback (ISBN 0-553-29076-2) was published by Bantam Books on June 1, 1994.

Plot synopsis

The novel's protagonist and narrator is Harrison Burns, who received money contributing to his boarding school education courtesy of Gerald Bradley, the patriarch of a large, wealthy, and politically well-connected Irish Catholic family who has links to organized crime. Twenty years after Bradley's neighbor, Connecticut teenager Winifred Utley, is bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, her murder remains unsolved, and Burns, now a successful true crime writer who is haunted by the secret he has kept for the past two decades, steps forward to accuse Gerald's son Constant of the crime. Constant, who is being groomed to be President of the United States! What ensues is a widespread investigation that threatens to tear apart one of the most powerful families in the state, unless they manage to destroy Burns first.

Critical reception

In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd observed, "In his latest cafe-society roman a clef . . . Dominick Dunne takes all the most chilling character flaws of three generations of Kennedys and compresses them into one creepy plot line. If you can bear to read one more word, even with a gossamer veneer of fiction, about America's royal and sorrowful Irish Catholic clan, and if you like Mr. Dunne's dishy style of society vivisection, then you will probably enjoy his new tour of the toxic side of a golden American family."[2]

Gene Lyons of Entertainment Weekly thought, "What ought to have been the gripping courtroom drama hinted at in the novel's opening pages becomes a murky progression of botched assassinations, fortuitous heart attacks and strokes, and a homicide trial filled with more legal absurdities than a half-dozen episodes of Night Court. After so promising a start, it's a letdown." Despite his disappointment, he graded it "a solid B."[3]

A critical analysis of themes in Dunne's fiction, "The Inconvenient Women: Feminine Consciousness and the American Gentry in the Popular Novels of Dominick Dunne" [4] by Robert von Dassanowsky, posits that Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited strongly influenced the structure and characters of A Season in Purgatory.

Television adaptation

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Robert W. Lenski adapted the novel for a May 1996 CBS miniseries directed by David Greene. The cast included Patrick Dempsey as Harrison Burns, Craig Sheffer as Constant Bradley, and Brian Dennehy as Gerald Bradley, with Sherilyn Fenn, Edward Herrmann, David Marshall Grant, Bonnie Bedelia, and Blair Brown in supporting roles.


  1. ^ December 17, 2002 Dominick Dunne profile by Jeff Falcon at
  2. ^ "Dunne Purgatory". The New York Times. June 6, 1993.[dead link]
  3. ^ "A Season in Purgatory".
  4. ^ Popular Culture Review VII/1 (1997)