Morality Play

Ace Atkins: back at the scene of the crime.



"This story is a patchwork of the known, the unknown and some pretty damn good intelligent hunches," says author Ace Atkins in a press release that accompanies his latest crime novel, Devil's Garden (Putnam). As with Atkins, then, let's start with what's known. It's the sad case of funnyman Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

In 1918, Arbuckle — a real heavyweight but a man light on his feet and a master of physical comedy — was one of the silent screen's highest- paid, most beloved performers. He'd mentored Charlie Chaplin, and he'd discovered Buster Keaton. But in 1921, his fortunes took a nosedive when he was accused of raping and accidentally killing a Hollywood bit player named Virginia Rappe. >>>

The scene of the alleged assault was a room in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel, and the press and the public had a field day with the scandal, one that had all the makings of a super-scandal once the courts got hold of it: a hotel room, music on the Victrola, a handful of guys boozing it up on bootleg liquor, and for added fun: some good-time showgirls to complete the picture of Hollywood at its immoral worst.

Arbuckle's criminal trials — "trials" because it took three juries to clear him of the charges — couldn't restore his professional reputation for a full decade, and during that period, his films were banned, his career was ruined. Until . . . in 1933, Warner Bros. offered him a feature-length film. "This is the best day of my life," Arbuckle said. The following day he suffered a heart attack and died.

Arbuckle's untimely death — however — isn't the subject of Devil's Garden, however. Various devils are, and chief among them is newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst, who made Arbuckle's downfall a personal goal and an unending front-page story. Count those Hollywood types, those show girls, and a whole untrustworthy host of attorneys, police officers, and society do-gooders among the lesser devils. Sam, however, isn't one of them. He's merely the Pinkerton operative making $3 a day to support his wife and infant daughter, but he's on the Arbuckle case, and he's a good man for the job. He knows every shadowy lowlife and dark alley in San Francisco, and he knows the evil men do. And he knows, despite Prohibition, where to get a drink and when to keep his eyes open and mouth shut. But he also knows that the drinks, the smokes, the long hours, and tuberculosis are killing him. This life of crime — investigating crime — is killing him. He needs out of it. But he doesn't get out of. You know Sam as the man who went on to write as Dashiell Hammett.

Atkins knows him too. Devil's Garden practically channels Hammett's unfussy prose and tough-guy talk. But Atkins knows San Francisco as well. He grew up there, the son of a player for the 49ers, and the author himself played football for the Auburn Tigers in the early 1990s. For more than a decade, though, his focus has been on crime: true crime when he worked as a journalist in Florida, where one of his pieces earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination; fictional crime as the author of four novels starring investigator Nick Travers. Atkins has since returned to true crime as inspiration in White Shadow (2006), in Wicked City (2008), and now in Devil's Garden, a devilishly good page-turner from an author who today makes his home just down the road, outside Oxford, Mississippi.

Shelf Life

Disaster Strikes: It didn't get the headlines it deserved — Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination took care of that — but when the boilers on the steamboat Sultana exploded on an April night in 1865, the tragic event was and remains the worst maritime disaster in American history. An estimated 1,700 lives were lost, most of them Union soldiers returning from the battlefields of the Civil War and from wretched Confederate prison camps. That the Sultana went down just a few miles north of Memphis makes Alan Huffman's history of the sinking in Sultana (HarperCollins/Smithsonian Books) required reading for Bluff City history buffs.

Truth Be Told: Ida B. Wells, the late-nineteenth-century activist (and onetime Memphian), was once the most widely read black female journalist in the United States. These days, she's become a top subject for biographers. Last year saw the exhaustively researched Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula Giddings. This past February saw the publication of To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells (Hill and Wang) by Mia Bay.

Wells wasn't alone, of course, in her crusade for civil rights for African Americans. Joining her into the twentieth century were women such as Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Lorraine Hansberry, and Memphian Margaret C. McCullough. The speeches — given by them and three dozen other women — are collected (many published for the first time) in Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965 (University Press of Mississippi) edited by Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon.

And speaking of newsworthy women, editors Sarah Wilkerson Freeman and Beverly Greene Bond keep it close to home in Tennessee Women: Their Lives and Times (The University of Georgia Press). Their book is a collective portrait in 18 biographical essays, and women from Memphis and Shelby County figure prominently: from Nan-ye-hi (who fought for the rights of Cherokees in frontier West Tennessee), to Frances Wright (the first woman in America to publicly oppose slavery), to Milly Swan Price (an antebellum free woman of color), to Mary Church Terrell (civil rights activist).

See too: Charl Ormond Williams (the national Democratic Party's first female vice-chair), Bettye Berger (who, as a songwriter, disk jockey, and record producer, bridged the world of rock-and-roll and soul), Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg (civil rights proponent), and Doris Bradshaw (environmental activist). Freeman (of Arkansas State University) and Bond (of the University of Memphis) have done a good job too drawing contributors from the Memphis academic community: among them, Aram Goudsouzian, Betty Sparks Huehls, and Gail S. Murray.

It's Official: Being a perfect Southern mother is no picnic. Ask Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, both Delta natives (Hays is a Rhodes College alum). They've already had their authorial say on the best way to throw the perfect Southern funeral (in Being Dead Is No Excuse) and the perfect Southern wedding (in Somebody Is Going To Die If Lilly Beth Doesn't Catch That Bouquet). You can go ahead and thank them now for Some Day You'll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies' Guide to Being a "Perfect" Mother (Hyperion) which, besides showing you how to achieve maternal perfection, covers Southern recipes, from cucumber sandwiches to "Chipped Beef and Cream Cheese a la Cora Louise." Problems? See Chapter VI: "Grand Dames and Other Mothers: No Matter What Kind of Southern Mother You Had, Your Therapist Can Help You Through It." M

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