Title: Devil’s Garden
Author: Ace Atkins
Format: Paperback edition by Berkley
Before Ace Atkins became noted for being the writer chosen by Robert B. Parker’s estate to continue the adventures of Parker’s best known creation, Spenser, he was an accomplished novelist in his own right. Although definitely a crime/mystery/noir author, Atkins made a career out of tackling some of the biggest crimes out of American history and turning them into knuckle cracking, action packed historical fiction novels. Fortunately for readers of his work, these are also the crime/mystery/noir novels he is known for.
Now, having made the claim above about the crimes Atkins tackles, please note. Many of the murders, kidnappings, and other assorted evils he turns into great fiction are probably not events most people today recall or even are aware ever happened. These crimes, however, when committed, literally shook the foundation oftentimes of society as it was then. If you believe that scandals as well as people being tried in the media before in court is a new thing, then Ace Atkins will gladly prove you wrong again and again. Much of what Atkins tackles in his novels still applies to our modern era, even though they are set in the past, usually the early to mid 20th Century. And it’s not that Atkins has to stretch or change things for the stories to be timely. He actually simply tells a good story, using what is available to him. It just so happens, as Devil’s Garden shows, yesterday and today have a lot more in common than most think.
Devil’s Garden focuses on the events leading to and the trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, beginning in September 1921. A name lost to history except for its connection to this case, Fatty Arbuckle was the Hollywood comedy star of his day. Known for playing outlandish characters and particularly making a name for himself in the Keystone Cops shorts, Arbuckle was at the top of his game and lived life as if he were truly king, throwing lavish parties, driving a Pierce-Arrow complete with bar and toilet around, and essentially doing whatever he wanted. Until a party in a hotel in San Francisco in September 1921 ended with a little known starlet named Virginia Rappe dead and Arbuckle accused of crushing her to death with his enormous body.
With this as a premise, Atkins takes an aspect of the case and turns it into one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. It turns out that Dashiell Hammett, the author of The Maltese Falcon and one of the leading masters of mystery fiction, often credited for perfecting the hard boiled detective, was assigned to the Arbuckle case. Hammett worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the late teens into the early 1920s and was one of the operatives assigned to help prove that Arbuckle did not have a part in Virginia Rappe’s death.
This book is really three stories in one, and Atkins delivers with all three of them. First, it is about Hammett and the man he was behind and before the great books he wrote. Atkins pulls no punches, writing Hammett as a real human being, husband, tough guy, lunger (Hammett suffered from tuberculosis), and most notably a man struggling with himself as much as the world around him. Atkins not only paints a complete and full picture of Hammett, but he also gives readers a believable, credible, and fallible hero to follow as Hammett weaves his way through the complicated tangles that made up the Arbuckle case.
Devil’s Garden is also a brilliantly executed courtroom thriller. As much time is spent on the proceedings in the first Arbuckle trial as is on Hammett’s investigation of the case. Not only does Atkins deliver fantastic interpretations of the principal players, but he also illustrates the actual courtroom action in a way that makes it as exciting as Hammett chasing down the mysterious ‘Dark Man’, a character integral to the book.
Lastly, this novel turns out to be a multifaceted love story. Three couples, really, are at the center of the romance here- Hammett and his nurse wife Jose, Arbuckle and his actress wife Minta Durfee, and… well, let’s just say the third couple involved a movie actress and a man who single handedly, for better or worse, may be responsible for the state of journalism today. As much betrayal, scandal, and heartfelt emotion is displayed by Atkins dissecting these three relationships as is done by any other focus in the book. And the beauty of all of it is Atkins takes all three of these ‘novels within the novel’, and ties them perfectly together into Devil’s Garden, a book that should be counted as a crime noir classic all its own.
Devil’s Garden is definitely a Five Pager for me. And in my own parlance, this definitely gets six out of six bullets for me. It is a fully loaded gun that goes off and hits every target it aims at.