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.
* Devil’s Garden hits stores in trade paperback this March.
(Photo © Joshua Gaylord)