Crime and the City: Las Vegas ‹ CrimeReads
Crime and the City: Las Vegas ‹ CrimeReads
Wild Casino

Let’s go to Las Vegas with one of the great kings of the American hard-boiled Charles Willeford in his novel Wicked Wives (1956):

‘Once the sun comes up in the desert it rises fast. It hung on the horizon like a solid neon pumpkin, beaming through our windshield. It grew warmer all the time. The closer we got to Vegas, the more numerous the billboards. Every club, every gambling hall claimed to do better than the last one advertised. Each claimed to have better entertainment than the last.  As I remember Vegas, it was a good town. I hadn’t been there for several years, but I’d had a good time, even though I ended up hitchhiking to Los Angeles to get away.’

I know there’s no way I’m going to please everyone with this column. Too much Vegas, too small a word count. But I’ve spun the wheel of chance, pulled the leaver on the slot machine of hope, and these are the Vegas books and the Vegas writers that came up trumps… 

First off, let’s get a little taste of that old Vegas – the mob’s sandy dream, when gangsters dreamt of a world of their own making out in the desert, beyond rules, jurisdictions and the law. A money-making machine and adult playground for them and their good friends. Rod Reynolds excellent Charlie Yates trilogy is set in the immediate post-war period starting in the corrupt burg of Texarkana, moving on to LA and then in book 3, Cold Desert Sky (2018), reaching Las Vegas. Yates is a hack for the Pacific Journal who usually gets a little too involved in his stories. This time it’s the disappearance of two aspiring Hollywood starlets, Nancy Hill and Julie Desjardins. A good story for the weekend edition – the failed dreams of Hollywood, the dangerous lure of the West. And dangerous for Charlie too as the story leads him right to legendary Mob boss Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, a man he once crossed, and whose shadow he can’t shake. After working so long for his dream Siegel is preparing to open his new Hotel Casino, The Flamingo, and no nosy newsman is going to stop him. 

Moving from the twentieth to the twenty-first century Tod Goldberg’s Chicago mob hitman hiding out in Vegas, suffering in the desert, Sal Cupertine. Sal screwed up. Sal killed three undercover FBI agents. Sal needs to disappear – new town, new life, never darken Chi-town’s door again. And the killer disguise? The mob has made Sal a Rabbi in Las Vegas. We meet Sal adjusting to his new life – new town, new climate, new religion! In Gangsterland (2015). Turns out Sal Cupertine, alias Rabbi David Cohen, is not a totally bad Rabbi, laundering money through the Temple and a new private school. Now, in Gangster Nation (2017) Sal’s thinking maybe it’s time to move on – Mexico or maybe Argentina? But a combination of the FBI and some old associates in town means Sal/Rabbi Cohen is staying firmly in Vegas. And, in book three, Gangster’s Don’t Die (2023), Sal is still trying to exit the life but Native American kingpin Peaches Pocotillo has wrested control of Chicago’s mob family while expanding his criminal empire in the west, and now seeks to settle an old score with Sal. So, leaving’s not so easy. And we do need to also mention Goldberg’s short story collection, The Low Desert: Gangster Stories (2021), described by one reviewer as Raymond Carver meets Elmore Leonard, a bunch of stories that expand upon the Vegas saga of Sal Cupertine.

Chris Abani (you may remember him from Crime and the City Lagos) has given us the gritty and award winning The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014). About to retire Las Vegas detective Salazar is determined to solve a recent spate of murders. It seems an easy, if slightly strange, final case – he arrests a pair of conjoined twins with a container of blood. Salazar and Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African ex-pat in Vegas who specializes in the study of psychopaths. Sunil dreams of life back in South Africa and finds solace in a strange city in the arms of Asia, a prostitute. It’s not easy to categorise Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas, it’s a super weird one, but a very compelling novel too. 

For a good overview of the various underworld elements of Vegas you could do worse than read Joe Ide’s Righteous (2017). Featuring Ide’s regular character – the smart-as-a-whip contemporary LA Sherlock Holmes IQ – Isaiah Quintabe, the books are invariably set in LA (see Crime and the City Los Angeles). But in Righteous IQ is on the trail of a friend’s missing sister, an erratic DJ and gambling addict who is rumoured to have holed up in Vegas. So, it’s time to hit Route 66. Loan sharks, Chinese Triads, deadbeat boyfriends and a criminal mastermind. Righteous maintains the high standard of all the IQ novels. 

David Albertyn’s Undercard (2020) is a thrilling, fast moving 24 hours in Vegas. The worlds of gambling, boxing, policing and what it means to have Vegas as your hometown come together in this novel. Tyron Shaw is back after eleven years, a lifetime in Vegas-time. Everything’s changed, yet everything’s stayed the same. The novel largely takes place in The Reef, an aquarium-themed casino resort on the Strip – a brilliant model for the over-the-top, garish casinos on contemporary Vegas. 

Kevin G. Chapman, winner of the 2021 Kindle Book Award, hits Vegas in Perilous Gambit (2021), a book in his Mike Stoneman series. It’s another novel that crams in the Vegas tropes we love so much – drive-through wedding chapels, drag acts and crass tourists. Still, when the drag act turns up dead shot-gun newlyweds Jason and Rachel investigate.

It’s the Las Vegas hinterlands in Sara Gran’s The Infinite Blacktop (2018), a book in her Claire DeWitt series that jumps around various US locations including San Francisco and New Orleans. The Infinite Blacktop is set between Las Vegas and LA as Claire DeWitt is driven off the desert road and left for dead. DeWitt knows it’s a past problem come back to kill her in the no man’s land of the desert outside of Vegas, but not yet in LA. 

And (almost) finally, as usual a highly recommended and somewhat different take on the city in question. Vu Tran’s Dragonfish (2016) is a highly rated but scandalously under-read Vegas-set thriller. Vu Tran, born in Saigon and raised in Oklahoma, wrote Dragonfish, his debut novel, while living in Las Vegas. It’s a cool hybrid of a literary thriller and a narrative of migration that is often quite cinematic. Ex-cop Robert can’t let go of Suzy, his Vietnamese wife who left him two years ago. But now she’s disappeared from her new husband, Sonny, a violent Vietnamese smuggler and gambler who blackmails Robert into finding her for him. Cue a trawl through the seamy side of Vegas’s gambling dens. But as Robert dives deeper into Las Vegas he encounters the ghosts of Suzy’s past, back in a Malaysian refugee camp after the fall of Saigon. Dragonfish is a powerful novel that sticks in the mind long after reading. 

But let’s give the final word on Sin City, the Nevada oasis of luck and chance, to Michael Connelly. Early in his writing career Connelly ventured out to Vegas in Void Moon (2009), a Vegas reborn from the old dream of Bugsy Siegel and his associates into a family vacation destination – all be it one with a murky, seedy and often deadly underbelly:

‘The fact that Las Vegas was born of a mobster’s dream and run for decades by like-minded and associated men was being lost in the community’s collective amnesia. Las Vegas had been reborn as the All-American city. It was pirate ships and half-scale Eiffel Towers, waterslides, and roller coasters. Families welcome. Mobsters need not apply.’