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Devil's Garden Paperback – March 30, 2010
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Amazon Exclusive: Megan Abbott Reviews Devil's Garden
Megan Abbott is the Edgar®-winning author of the crime novels Queenpin, The Song is You and Die a Little. Her new novel, Bury Me Deep, which is loosely based on the Winnie Ruth Judd "Trunk Murderess" scandal of the 1930s, comes out in July 2009. She lives in Queens, New York.
One might call it bold or even arrogant. An author takes on not only one of the most storied scandals of the 20th century as his subject of his new novel but, at the same time, deploys one of America's most celebrated writers as one of its central characters. That is precisely what Ace Atkins does in his new novel, Devil's Garden, a giddy, swaggering take on the Fatty Arbuckle trial, with a young detective named Dashiell Hammett navigating the scandal’s heady convolutions. But you need only get through the dreamy, haunted prologue—based on Hammett's famous account of being offered money to murder a union leader—to realize that Atkins’s choices are not driven by arrogance at all. Devil's Garden is an act of love.
From frothy show girls to sly-eyed grifters, from machinating hangers-on to Arbuckle himself, so shocked by the speed and cruelty of his descent he can barely lift his head up—all of Atkins' characters are treated with wit, understanding and, frequently, clear-eyed affection. While we see repeated glimmers of the Hammett to come, Atkins never lets the story, or the prose, slip into hardboiled kitsch or winking parody. Nor does he let any reverence cloud his vision. Many of characters that populate Devil's Garden feel like they could emerge, gin-clouded and blood-simple, in Hammett's Red Harvest or The Glass Key, but we can see why: they are so clearly the figures that inspired him. While it tips its hat to Hammett’s world, Devil's Garden caroms along with a style and velocity all its own.
A marvelous extension of Atkins' fascination (White Shadow, Wicked City) with the cunning and often cruel ways that hustlers high and low, board room and back alley, manipulate power, Devil's Garden revels in contradictions—it is both sprawling and intimate, rollicking and poignant. The novel begins on Labor Day weekend, 1921, when beloved screen comic Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle threw a wild party in a suite at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. One of his guests, a young woman named Virginia Rappe, fell ill and died shortly after from peritonitis brought on by a ruptured bladder. As the story took on momentum and news headlines screamed, Arbuckle himself faced criminal indictment. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst reputedly boasted that the scandal sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania.
The fact that pre-Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett was one of the Pinkerton detectives assigned to the Arbuckle case is pure literary gold and Atkins’s mines it with great care. His Hammett feels real, a raw-boned young man with a sharp eye and a writer’s gimlet eye and beating heart. He is our trusty guide through a seamy tour through the worlds of yellow journalism, backroom politics and the merry band of hucksters, thieves and B girls who circle around Arbuckle’s downfall, picking pockets along the way. As big as the scandal grows, and as larger-than-life as Atkins’s characters (William Randolph Heart, Marion Davies, Arbuckle himself) are, they never feel anything less than human, petty, troubled, heartbroken, real. It’s quite an achievement.
Late in the novel, Atkins gives us a scene of Arbuckle and his wife, actress Minta Durfee, at the piano playing old songs from their journeymen showbiz days, singing as loud as they can until the windows of their soon-to-be-lost mansion shake. It’s the kind of moment that lingers. You have the feeling, as you do so often when you’re reading Devil’s Garden, of watching some shuddery lost Jazz-Age film. It's as glittery and jubilant as New Year's Eve noisemaker one minute, but the next, one of those haunting silent-movie faces loom out at us, telling us their whole, sad stories with just a twitch of the mouth, a flicker in the eye.
(Photo © Joshua Gaylord) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The 1921 rape/manslaughter trial of silent film star Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle provides the gritty backdrop for Atkins's outstanding crime novel, in which Dashiell Hammett, then a Pinkerton operative living in San Francisco, plays a significant role. A wild party Arbuckle throws at San Francisco's posh St. Francis Hotel results in tragedy after an actress, Virginia Rappe, is mysteriously injured and later dies. As the author explains in a behind the story introduction, the future creator of Sam Spade was actually assigned to help the defense on the Arbuckle case. With enviable ease, Atkins (Wicked City) brings to life Hammett, Arbuckle, William Randolph Hearst and other real figures of the period. Those familiar with the historical case will be impressed by how well the book meshes fact and fiction. Genre fans who enjoy the grim realism of James Ellroy's post-WWII Los Angeles will find a lot to like in Atkins's Prohibition-era San Francisco. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was roaring through the '20s with plenty of showgirls and hooch when he pajama-partied a little too much and a starlet got dead. At the time, Hammett was a Pinkerton operative hired to find witnesses whom prosecutors were hiding. Hearst, of course, deployed his yellow-journalism reporters to crucify the "portly beast" Arbuckle. (Chris Farley wanted to play Fatty in a movie, and it would have been a match, because Arbuckle was a self-loathing porker with a gift for making people laugh and no desire ever to grow up.)
Ace Atkins -- yeah, that's really his name -- writes cinematically: Short scenes with clever "buttons" alternate with long swaths of snappy dialogue. One flimflam man, for example, describes another as "a phony bird. That's halfway between crazy and a con man, and that's the middle of the road, brother."
Hammett -- he was "Sam" then, back before his Dashiell days -- tails tricksters and crooks into ornate hotel lobbies and up San Francisco's hills, wheezing with the effort and pausing to spit blood into his handkerchief. While some good-hearted folks appear -- Sam's first wife, one of the Pinkertons, a snitch named Pete the Fink -- the speakeasies and courtrooms of The City are filled by people with their hands out, thumbing their noses at what passes for an upright legal system.
Atkins works too hard at blackening Hearst's character in the epilogue, but Devil's Garden still rises far beyond pulp fiction to a much higher level. The three central characters -- Sam, Fatty and W.R. -- are all blameworthy, all filled with shame but unwilling to do much about it. In Atkins' world, prudes are really grifters, a power broker is just a little boy, a legal case is like a melodrama and a scalawag can be a stand-up guy. There aren't many moralistic blacks and whites in Devil's Garden -- just a lot of grays, melting off into that San Francisco fog.
Pinkerton private investigator Sam Dashiell Hammett investigates the case for the defense. He finds at best a sloppy official inquiry by SFPD and an even more questionable autopsy; as if everyone feared the wrath of Hearst. Rightfully so, as the newspaper mogul keeps up the tirade until Arbuckle is condemned in public and his comedic movie career buried under innuendos and disinformation. Hammett finds all sorts of Hollywood scandals, but none as perverse as Hearst's unethical efforts that the sleuth believes is to save the movie career of his mistress Marian Davies at the expense of Arbuckle.
Ace Atkins' third historical mystery (see WHITE SHADOW and WICKED CITY) is a terrific silent movie era noir focusing on the notorious Arbuckle murder case. The story line is fast-paced, filled with action, loaded with real persona, and captures the era especially how influential the newspapers (specifically Hearst) as well as anyone since Citizen Caine.
Of course this novel is based on a true story, the famous Fatty Arbuckle trial, plus the involvement of the young Pinkerton detective Dashiell "Sam" Hammett, which creates a further layer of intrigue and interest. Obviously, Atkins did a lot of research for this story, not only in getting the names and places and facts of the trial correct, but also in creating a real sense of atmosphere and drama. Throw in Atkins' flair for penning authentic dialogue and you have a real winner of a novel.
Crime fiction fans, especially those who are familiar with the classic novels by Dashiell Hammett, should find this novel to be a very absorbing and interesting read.