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Review: 'Devil's Garden' by Ace Atkins puts Dashiell Hammett in the Fatty Arbuckle case

Dashiell Hammett is having a busy year for a guy who's been pushing up daisies since 1961.

In February, Joe Gores published Spade & Archer, a deftly done prequel to Hammett's best-known novel, The Maltese Falcon.

Now Ace Atkins makes Hammett himself the protagonist of his new novel, Devil's Garden.

Atkins, a former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune who now lives near Oxford, Miss., took his first flutter at historical fiction with the compelling White Shadow, published in 2006 and based on the 1955 murder of Tampa mobster Charlie Wall. He followed that with Wicked City, about a 1954 assassination in Phenix City, Ala.

For Devil's Garden Atkins goes all the way back to 1921 and takes on a famous cast of characters. Sam Hammett (Dashiell was Hammett's middle name, which he only began to use when he became a writer later in the 1920s) is working as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency in San Francisco when he's assigned to investigate one of the most notorious crimes of the era.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was a hugely successful star of the early days of silent films, a beloved comic actor as well as a director, screenwriter and mentor to such stars as Bob Hope and Buster Keaton.

As Devil's Garden opens in September 1921, Arbuckle and several friends have a party in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The booze flows despite Prohibition; a Hollywood hanger-on named Virginia Rappe becomes severely ill at the party and dies four days later.

Her death, medically attributed to a burst bladder, is soon blamed on Arbuckle. Another woman at the party, Maude Delmont, accuses him of raping Rappe; the rumor mill churns with sordid tales of a drunken orgy where Arbuckle either used a bottle or other object to cause the young woman's injuries, or simply crushed her under his weight.

The case rapidly escalates into one of the first big Hollywood scandals, drawing national newspaper coverage. Arbuckle's movies are withdrawn from theaters, and many of the fans who roared with laughter at his antics turn away.

Hammett is hired by Arbuckle's defense team to help them prepare for his trial on manslaughter charges, and the detective soon finds that plenty is sordid, all right.

Atkins moves the story seamlessly among Arbuckle's imprisonment and trial, Hammett's pursuit of leads through a vividly evoked 1920s San Francisco, and strange doings in the offices and at the San Simeon estate of press magnate William Randolph Hearst. His newspapers are among Arbuckle's most vehement critics, but is it a moral crusade on Hearst's part or, as Sam says, "A woman . . . always a woman"?

Hammett works another case in Devil's Garden, too, and Atkins shows us the Pinkerton op gathering the material — and the attitude — that will later make his fiction so convincing. He gives Hammett his own dangerous dame, a platinum-haired, silver-eyed federal revenue agent named Daisy Simpkins, who shows up to raid bootleggers wearing her most stylish frocks and carrying a 12-gauge shotgun, just to impress the "newsboys." Sam even gets what Maltese Falcon fans will recognize as his own Flitcraft moment.

Atkins also does a fine job of painting Hammett's complex, warm relationship with his wife, Jose, a nurse who cared for him in a military hospital during World War I.

Basing Devil's Garden on extensive research into the Arbuckle case, Atkins brings it to life with crisp dialogue, believable characters and a gripping plot. As one cop says to Sam, "Everyone on this case is a liar. It can make you screwy." But in a good way. Devil's Garden is a worthy addition to Hammett's legacy.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Devil's Garden

By Ace Atkins

Putnam, 368 pages, $24.95

Review: 'Devil's Garden' by Ace Atkins puts Dashiell Hammett in the Fatty Arbuckle case 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:30am]

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