Saturday, March 14, 2009

Devil’s Workshop

Ace Atkins at the Arcade Restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photograph by Jay Nolan)

Author Ace Atkins’ back story is the stuff of one of those sprawling, robust American novels of the mid-20th-century by Norman Mailer, James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck, or James Jones. He’s the college football star who made the cover of Sports Illustrated and then turned into a muckraking, Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter, penning blues-drenched mysteries on the side, before settling deep in the heart of Faulknerania, teaching journalism at Ole Miss while publishing a pair of dazzling crime novels--White Shadow (2006) and Wicked City (2008)--that tangle fiction and fact.

His latest book, Devil’s Garden (due out from Putnam in early April), deepens Atkins’ fascination with the cunning and often cruel ways that American scoundrels high and low, overworld and underworld, manipulate power. The real-life case at the center of his tale: the infamous 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal. The agreed-upon facts are still few. World-famous and much-loved screen comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle threw a wild party in a suite at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel on September 5, 1921, Labor Day weekend. One of the guests, 20-something model-actress Virginia Rappe, fell ill and died shortly afterward from peritonitis brought on by a ruptured bladder. Days later, as the story took on momentum and newspaper headlines shrieked, Arbuckle was indicted for manslaughter. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst reportedly bragged later that this Jazz Age criminal case sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania.

It is a vast, complicated, and tragic story, and one of the many achievements of Atkins’ new novel is that it feels both kaleidoscopic and intimate, beckoning us to eavesdrop on the backroom machinations among the biggest powerbrokers of the 1920s and the down-and-dirty connivings of a merry band of hucksters and thieves who circle around the movie star’s downfall, looking for any angle to cash in.

And who does Atkins--now 38 and living on a Mississippi farm--offer us as our most reliable guide through this heady brew? A smart young Pinkerton detective named ... Dashiell Hammett.

Megan Abbott: Did you have any hesitations about including Hammett as a character?

Ace Atkins: When I first thought about this project, I knew Hammett was a terrific component of the story. I just could not believe someone had not written about all these 20th-century icons--Hammett, Arbuckle, and Hearst--within a story about the trial. To me it seemed like a great E.L. Doctorow book. But when I got about halfway into the novel, I feared the book would be perceived--by those just looking superficially--as a gimmick, one of those quickie mysteries with a famous figure at the helm. But, what the hell? I mean, Hammett is a great character before he became that icon. Sam Hammett was interesting to me because of what I knew about his life at the time. So I had to get over those fears and just write the damn book.

MA: Did you set any rules for yourself about how faithful to his biography you would be?

AA: I wanted and hoped to be absolutely faithful to Sam Hammett, 1921. I did not want to write Sam Spade, Nick Charles, or The Continental Op. I wanted to write about a young man with a low-paying detective job, who was trying to make sense of a pregnant wife he barely knew and the tidal surge of political and cultural events of the period. I believe it’s an accurate reflection of Hammett’s frustration and boiling ambition at the time. I believe he was just forming a worldview that would eventually make such a huge impact in his literature.

MA: You must have done tremendous research into the Arbuckle case. Was it hard to find what you needed to?

AA: The great thing about this case that made it easier than my other two novels--White Shadow and Wicked City--was that it was a well-known story that happened in a major city. San Francisco records were well archived and easily found through a lot of letter-writing and a little detective work. The autopsy results on Virginia Rappe [shown on the left] and the inquest into her death were the first documents I found. But the newspapers of the period really provided the color, details, and drama that I needed to write a novel. The facts of the case--or lack of facts--is pretty basic. I really wanted to know about the conflict between the Vigilant Committee and Arbuckle, the little quips from Milton U’Ren, the prosecutor in the case, and the entire circus of the trial. That’s what made Devil’s Garden come together.

MA: Your novel features an intriguing epigraph from Hammett about the Arbuckle case: “The Arbuckle case was the funniest case I ever worked on. In trying to convict him, everyone framed everybody else.” Is that the sum of what Hammett said publicly about the case, or did he actually say more?

AA: Hammett was notoriously cryptic. In the foreword to [the 1966 short-story collection] The Big Knockover, Lillian Hellman writes about Hammett’s quirks. She recalled trying to pull biographical details from him such as: “Tell me more about the girl in San Francisco. The silly one who lived across the hall in Pine Street.”

“She lived across the hall in Pine Street and was silly,”
Hammett said.

When Hellman inquired more, Hammett would say, “Finish your
drink and go to sleep.”

I do believe I understand Hammett and his worldview at the time. I know where and how he lived and even more about his wife, [onetime nurse Josephine “Jose” Dolan], through a friend of mine who was the only person to ever interview her. I perhaps got to understand Hammett by understanding his complicated relationship with her.

MA: You can tell us: What do you think happened to Virginia Rappe in that hotel room?

AA: It’s in the book. I’m sure of it. So I don’t want to say too much.

But since Virginia Rappe died, Roscoe Arbuckle has been portrayed as either a beast or an angel. He wasn’t either. I know he was very drunk and probably very horny on that Labor Day. But I don’t think either one of those things killed Virginia Rappe.

MA: You have a fascinating dual portrait of William Randolph Hearst and [his paramour] Marion Davies in this novel. How much of that comes from your research and what is your own invention?

AA: As the novel started to come together, it was quickly known to me that Devil’s Garden was really a love story. And if you pick apart each thread--not my invention, but really the truth of the different characters--you’ll see different types of love. I think Hammett felt obligation and duty to a woman he got pregnant. I think Minta Durfee’s love for her ex-husband, Roscoe [seen at right], was really the most pure. And of course you have Hearst with his obsession with Marion Davies. There is a mountain of fact and background for his relationship with Davies. The Svengali thing was pretty easy. During the Arbuckle trial, the only thing that knocked Roscoe off the front page of the Hearst paper was the opening of Marion Davies’ Enchantment at the Grenada Theater. The opening gained a bigger headline than the world war. I guess I would say scenes were created from a lot of research.

She really was a gorgeous woman and it was hard to blame the guy.

MA: The cast of grifters and con artists you unfurl is like Hammett crossed with Damon Runyon. You introduce the case’s infamous star witness, Virginia Rappe’s friend Maude Delmont, dining on bourbon and ice cream. But some of your other characters are less well-known, even to aficionados of the case. For instance, your character Daisy Simpkins, “federal dry agent.” Is she your invention, or does she have a real-life counterpart?

AA: You really can’t beat bourbon and ice cream. It’s a
wonderful combination.

And I’m glad you asked about Daisy Simpkins. I know most people will believe she’s invented. Look, she’s named “Daisy,” with all the Jazz Era connotations from Fitzgerald, and [she’s] a shotgun-toting federal agent just after women were given the right to vote. But Daisy was absolutely real. She had great coverage in the San Francisco Examiner in 1921 with headlines like “Girl Agent Leads Raid.” She was apparently tough as nails and such a ballsy figure in San Francisco at that time. I never saw a picture of her, and I don’t know anything about her private life. (Her relationship with Hammett was invented. But I know he would’ve loved her.) But she’s one of those wonderful characters lost to time that I wanted readers to know about.

MA: Devil’s Garden is coming out less than two months after Joe Gores’ prequel to The Maltese Falcon, Spade & Archer, was released. Have you had a chance to read Gores’ novel yet?

AA: I have not. But I have a copy and plan to read it while on tour for Devil’s Garden. I’ve been working on a new novel for the past year and feared Gores would transport me right back to 1920s San Francisco and Hammett, and that I’d never return. I’m looking forward to it.

MA: What’s one of your favorite recent reads, crime novels aside?

AA: Without doubt, it would be ... Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game [1978], by William Kennedy. I’m very embarrassed to say this was my first read of the novel, which stacks up to anything in 20th-century literature. Kennedy is a powerhouse of a talent telling a hell of a story. It’s the best novel I’ve read since discovering The Paperboy, by Pete Dexter, 10 years ago.

MA: There has been much discussion at mystery conventions of late about this issue: How do you think the publishing world handles so-called noir?

AA: I think my main qualification for any novel is sincerity. I sense many writers turning to noir because they know it sells. Some will say they are slumming and most don’t know a damn thing about the art form. If the writer doesn’t know noir from mystery from thriller from a crime novel, then they really should study up. I’ve seen a handful of so-called noirs be released that are so riddled with plot devices and clichés that they’d be laughed at by anyone with a passing knowledge of crime fiction.

To me, the crime novel or the noir is a great American art form. But lately it does seem to be a buzzword and a marketing hook, a safe haven for those with literary aspirations. Most publishers really don’t have a clue what really makes noir, and as we know, it’s much, much more than a crime.

MA: If you could have any author, living or dead, write you into their novels, as you have done with Hammett, who would you pick?

AA: I would have to say Danielle Steel. I know the character of Ace Atkins would get lucky with some really rich broad and get a plane ticket to Paris.

MA: So, what’s next for you?

AA: I’m finishing up a novel for 2010 set during the Great Depression and centering on the kidnapping of Oklahoma oilman Charles Urschel. The kidnapping was pulled off by the infamous “Machine Gun” Kelly, who was raised nearby to me, in Memphis. But the main attraction for telling this story was writing about his wife, Kathryn, who made Lady Macbeth look soft. It’s a crime novel and a road book, but really, at its core, somewhat of a comedy. I don’t really know if it’s noir. It has noir elements in it. But really, the only true noir I believe I’ve written would be White Shadow set in 1950s Tampa. I guess you could call Devil’s Garden a pre-noir.

READ MORE: Ace Atkins’ Amazon Blog; “History Repeats Itself, Only This Time with a Happy Ending,” by Roger Alford (Hollywood Noir).


Reg said...

Wow, fantastic interview. I'm a little behind on my Ace reading, still on the blues books, but I'm definitely putting this one on my list at once. It will be a nice change from translating Swedish crime, and a good chance to catch up on my Bay Area heritage. So that's what my grandmother was talking about when she would mention Fatty Arbuckle... Thanks so much!

Austin Carr said...

This guy has the looks to star in his own movies, too. Tell me you didn't do a little flirting, Ms. M.

Janice Cartier said...

Excellent interview. Devil's Garden is a memorable read. One of my favorites of all that Ace has written. Sure there's story, but more, there's access, a fascinating look into time and place. So richly textured and yet contained. I savored it.
And now thanks to this, I want to look up noir, the art form... nice post Megan, I 'll have to pick up one of your books. Thanks.