Facing a manslaughter rap, big-time movie star Fatty Arbuckle gets the Pinkerton agent Dashiell Hammett working on his behalf.
In September 1921, you can argue endlessly about who’s funnier, Chaplin or Arbuckle, whose face shines with ersatz innocence as he takes those earthshaking pratfalls. But there’s nothing funny about Arbuckle’s private life, which runs to nonstop booze, floozies and wild parties. The saturnalia at the St. Francis Hotel is merely typical until the girl in Suite 1219 turns up dead, causing the San Francisco authorities to pay particular attention. Arrest and indictment follow in short order. According to the prosecution, Virginia Rappe met her untimely end crushed under the importunate bulk of Roscoe Arbuckle. It’s an allegation lurid enough to enchant the whole avid world of yellow journalism. Though the evidence against Arbuckle is far from overwhelming, the defense is jumpy. Enter ace Pinkerton operative Sam Hammett, who’s not yet calling himself Dashiell. Coughing blood, obviously suffering from TB, he remains every skinny inch a detective’s detective, slogging toward some kind of truth through the moral and ethical despond known as the Arbuckle Case.
Atkins (Wicked City, 2008, etc.) writes so well that some readers—but not all—will forget to ask if that’s enough to validate time spent with irredeemable lowlifes in a modern-day Sodom.