Atkins found a compelling subject for his new fact-based novel, Devil’s Garden, in the murder trial of silent film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1921. Arbuckle was accused of causing the death of an obscure actress named Virginia Rappe during a wild party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco by crushing her under his 300-pound body during a rape attempt. Arbuckle would eventually be acquitted, after three trials, but his career was destroyed.
“Arbuckle’s the tragic clown,” Atkins says. “He was at the center of this media storm, and he went from one minute being one of the most beloved personalities in the world to being one of the most despised people in the country.”
Atkins is fascinated by the way in which the trials and the scandal surrounding them, fed in part by the interest that media baron William Randolph Hearst took in the case, prefigure our contemporary obsession with celebrity. “I think that most people think that’s a new thing, that we have become these creatures,” Atkins says. “But we have nothing on the people from the 1920s, and something like the Arbuckle scandal was just as big and powerful, and they were just as bloodthirsty for those kinds of stories, if not more.”
Devil’s Garden is Atkins’ seventh novel. His first four books were mystery novels staring a blues historian and obsessive researcher named Nick Travers. The last three novels are more ambitious, weaving elements of noir and mystery writing into big, fact-based historical canvases.
White Shadow, published in 2006, is based on a Pulitzer-nominated series of feature articles about a 1950s-era cold murder case that Atkins wrote while working as a crime beat reporter for the Tampa Tribune.
In 2008, Atkins published Wicked City, which is based on the violence that occurred in Phenix City, Alabama, in 1954, when the power of the redneck mafia that ran the town was challenged by a group of brave citizens.
For Atkins, perhaps the most attractive aspect of Devils’ Garden is the fact that one of his favorite writers, mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett, was involved in the case. Hammett was the author of such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Dain Curse. Hammett, then working in San Francisco as an investigator with the Pinkerton Agency, was assigned to work for Arbuckle’s attorneys. “He is a huge influence on me, so to have a year to do nothing but read Hammett, learn about his life and go to where he lived was fabulous,” Atkins says. “It was a lot of fun getting paid to do something that was a real labor of love.”
Atkins' research efforts were also aided by the timeless nature of the city by the bay. "San Francisco is one of those wonderful cities, like New Orleans, where time has stopped," Atkins says. "It’s very easy to transport yourself back to 1921 and nothing has changed. Johns Grill’s been retooled or whatever, but it’s still there. It’s still where Hammett went to eat. You can walk next door to the Flood Building where Hammett worked as detective. You can walk to the depths of Chinatown."
Atkins explains the aspects of Hammett’s style that have enthralled him since he was a teenager. “The one thing I’ve always loved about Hammett’s writing is the straightforwardness of it, the sparseness, the no bullshit quality, the fact that he can just grab a reader immediately, that he can develop things in a word or a sentence that might take other, lesser authors pages to develop,” he says.
Atkins looked forward to writing about his hero, whom he refers to in the book as Sam (the writer’s full name was Samuel Dashiell Hammett), but he saw one possible drawback. “I did not want to write a book that would be perceived as a celebrity whodunit,” he says. “I wanted to do a big sprawling book in which there was a character who was a twentieth century icon, but I did not want to write is it as a caricature. I wanted to write something that was really accurate.”
What intrigued Atkins about Hammett the man? “He was exceedingly complex,” Atkins says. “He could be a saint and he could be one of the most selfish people on the earth. He could very self-serving and he could be very heroic. He was a stand-up guy, but he later left his wife for another woman. He was a moral person in many ways but at the same time was a roaring alcoholic. He was very difficult to nail down. In his soul, in his heart, I think he as a very good man, but he was a very flawed individual, and for a writer those are the best kinds of characters to write about.”
Atkins was born in Troy, graduated from high school in Auburn and played football at Auburn University in the early 1990s. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife Angela and 18-month-old son Billy. He is working on his next novel, about 1930s gangster Machine Gun Kelly.
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