In September 1921, the silent movie star, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, travelled to San Francisco to spend two weeks partying in a set of suites in the St Francis Hotel. In a haze of bootleg booze and dancing to jazz, Arbuckle and his cronies entertain minor starlets and nightclub dancers. But something goes awry and the actress, Virginia Rappe, starts to writhe, twist and groan, before expiring. The D.A. alleges that Arbuckle crushed Rappe to death and the newspapers are having a field-day peddling the scandal, but there is much amiss about the case. The accounts of those attending the party conflict, the prosecution is hiding witnesses denying the defence access to them, certain body parts are missing after the autopsy, and Randolph Hearst’s newspapers in particular seem to be baying for Arbuckle to be convicted. Arbuckle’s defence team hire the Pinkerton detective agency to counter the prosecution case, assigning a young Dashiell Hammett to investigate. Struggling with illness, and with a young wife who is pregnant, Hammett works to discover the truth, despite the fact that all parties, including Arbuckle, have secrets they want to remain hidden.
As Ace Atkins details in a behind the book feature included at the end of the book, Dashiell Hammett is one of his heroes. The author of The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest and The Thin Man, did indeed work on the famous ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle case for Pinkerton’s. Plotted through meticulous research, The Devil’s Garden charts the full case, and the actions of the various protagonists, especially Arbuckle and Hammett. At one level, the research is the book’s great strength, placing the reader in the geography and social life of San Francisco of the 1920s. At another level, it is its weakness, with the narrative feeling like a popular history text written in the format of a novel. Indeed, it is impossible to know what are historical facts and what is the product of Atkins imagination. In some ways, the story is much more complex than would usually be plotted in a novel; the Arbuckle case was multifaceted, with many central and bit part actors, tied together through messy and convoluted relationships and plot. Whilst Atkins does a reasonable job to put a shape on it all, the narrative is quite bitty, and the characters feel oddly flat at times, lacking in depth and substance. Atkins is clearly a skilled writer, but by so slavishly following the history of the Arbuckle case, and all its various threads, he has ended up with a story that is weakened somewhat by it. It might have perhaps worked better to have just followed the case through the eyes of Hammett to provide a single, coherent thread in which a smaller number of characters are elaborated in detail. That said, on balance I enjoyed the book, and I’d be interested to read some of Atkin’s books, especially Crossroad Blues of which I have heard good things.