First in a series narrated by America's seminal PI novelists Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner, this is a sentimental journey through the watering holes and fleshpots of California when the authors worked as screenwriters in the '30s, living high and worrying about selling out to the studios. Hammett is the central character here, spinning a first-person yarn about a missing jewelled skull that closely resembles the inspiration for his classic, The Maltese Falcon. The exotic treasure causes a slew of greed-inspired murders, starting with the mysterious slaying of movie siren Sylvia Vane. She turns out to have been the secret wife of the aforementioned writing trio's editor at the legendary Black Mask magazine and the mother of a girl who could be in danger from gambling kingpins. The tangled tale successfully blends real characters with a fictional plot, good scholarship, and elegant writing, particularly when Gardner and Hammett chase a false lead in Frisco's Chinatown, running across a verbose Tong who gives them a contact's name and says to Hammett, ``Have your friend tell him that when the lotus is in bloom the soul stirs in joy.'' Nolan's (Hammett: A Life at the Edge, 1983, etc.) textured novel often creates that blissful effect.