Devil’s Garden

Written by Ace Atkins
Review by A. K. Bell

With the rash of mysteries featuring famous people as amateur detectives, I tend to sigh when I see another one, but this one is actually based in fact—and the detective was no amateur. In 1921 silent screen star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was accused of the rape and murder of starlet Virginia Rappe, and author Dashiell Hammett (then known as Sam) was a Pinkerton detective hired by the defense team. Atkins artfully recreates California in the 1920s: Hearst was building San Simeon and building up the career of Marion Davies, the movie business could forgive all manner of sins except bad publicity, and the booze flowed like water.

The laconic Hammett suffers from tuberculosis and makes for an unlikely but effective private investigator. Suspects are plentiful and include the con woman and her partner who brought Rappe to Arbuckle’s party, as well as the powerful Hearst himself. Atkins doesn’t make the mistake of writing in Hammett’s style but instead provides insight into the man, warts and all, before his fame. Only in the end is a hint of what’s to come telegraphed to the reader. An utterly engrossing mystery in which the getting there is as satisfying, if not more so, than the reveal.