Let's see: Prohibition, Hollywood, celebrities, booze, sex, corruption, rape, murder, a trial-of-the-century, plus a soon-to-be world famous mystery writer as the detective. How did Max Allan Collins miss this one? Atkins—best known for his series of mysteries featuring blues professor Nick Travers—visits Collins' turf and spins his own nifty historical detective yarn, retelling the notorious Fatty Arbuckle case. The silent film star was charged with the rape and subsequent death of a young starlet during a wild party in his San Francisco hotel suite, and among the Pinkerton agents hired by Arbuckle's lawyer is young, sickly Sam (Dashiell) Hammett. There is some question as to whether Hammett actually worked the case, but as the Hammett legacy lurches into public domain and interest is renewed, I guess we better prepare for more of this sort of thing.
Fortunately, Devil's Garden is enjoyable enough on its own terms, but like Joe Gores' recent Spade & Archer, the tendency to wear one's research on one's sleeve comes perilously close at times to sandbagging the story. The swirl of celebrity characters and meandering points of view never quite gel, and the deluge of call-outs and tips of the fedora are great fun but eventually grow wearisome. Intimations of characters and situations that would eventually work their way into Hammett's fiction abound (a snapped cable provides a Flitcraft-like moment, and a comely female "dry agent" sports "silver eyes," etc.) but don't always serve the story as well as they should. A little less trivia and a little more character development (and an afterword that pinpoints where conjecture and fact deviate) wouldn't have hurt. Still, an intriguing take on a relatively uncharted part of Hammett's life.