Ace Atkins went from being a good writer to an amazing one
seemingly overnight. The transformation occurred with WHITE SHADOW,
a fictionalized account of an unsolved murder that took place in
Tampa, Florida, in the 1950s. His next novel, WICKED CITY, about a
corrupt town in Alabama, was every bit as good as its predecessor.
But his latest work blows both of them, and just about everything
else, out of the water.
DEVIL’S GARDEN begins on a fateful Labor Day weekend in
1921 when silent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
came to San Francisco for a holiday of drunkenness and debauchery.
Within 72 hours a woman would be found critically injured in his
suite of rooms at the St. Francis Hotel; upon her death a short
while later, Arbuckle would be charged with manslaughter. Students
of the silent film era are familiar with the incident and how it
played out; those who are not probably would not care. So Atkins is
faced with a double dilemma: How do you make interesting a story
whose ending is already writ in history, and how do you attract a
reading audience from those whose interests may lie elsewhere?
The solution --- one that Atkins accomplishes with amazing,
almost magical ability --- is to paint each character with a
vividness that causes them to stay in the mind’s eye long
after they have passed off the page, all the while sprinkling them
through a narrative that flows unhurriedly even as the next
sentence, paragraph, page and chapter demand to be read
immediately. Atkins performs this Herculean task quite handily,
even as he recreates the San Francisco of the 1920s with such a
vividness that it seems to take over the real world of the here and
now if and when one stops reading. The inside front and back of
DEVIL’S GARDEN is thoughtfully illustrated with a
contemporary street map of the downtown area (coffee stains,
creases, and all) so that one might follow along with what happens
in the sprawling story. And what a story it is.
With a subtlety and irony mastered by but a few others, Atkins
suspensefully reveals how Arbuckle, a man of excessive and
unhealthy appetites, came to be charged with manslaughter, which
almost immediately derailed his film career. The temptation to tell
the story through Arbuckle’s eyes must have been strong, and
indeed at points it is necessary. It is but one of the many
manifestations of Atkins’s genius, however, that the
viewpoint most prominent here is that of the Pinkerton investigator
who was hired by Arbuckle’s attorney to conduct a search for
the truth that would form the basis for his defense.
That investigator would be a tuberculotic war veteran named Sam
Dashiell Hammett, who would later become far better known for far
different reasons. Hammett painstakingly begins to uncover who is
behind what amounts to be an official vendetta against Arbuckle,
and, even more importantly, the “why” that drives it,
even as the city’s establishment inexorably begins to grind
Arbuckle down. While the City of San Francisco is ultimately the
major character in the book, it is the story as told by Atkins that
is the true star.
DEVIL’S GARDEN is storytelling and writing at its very
best. With this novel, Atkins establishes himself as the literary
heir of a closely edited Faulkner, of a more disciplined Thomas
Wolfe. This is stirring, impeccable wordcraft that demands to be
read and re-read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 29, 2010