When the Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder by Steve Fischer

I am a sucker. If there is a book about the mob, I can’t help myself. I am not a mafia groupie – I just find the whole genre fascinating. I walked past this book quite a few times at the bookstore. Finally, there were only two copies left on the budget shelf and I threw caution and cash to the wind and bought it.

The author is a long time frequenter of Las Vegas. He started going back in the early heydays of the 1960’s and collected volumes of memorabilia. He started putting the mementos on E bay and buyers were more interested in the stories than the items.

Reading this book feels like going to someone’s house to play cards and have a few drinks while one person at the table regales the rest with stories about the past. I like that feel. It reminds me of my grandparents and their brothers and sisters telling the kids about what it was like back in the day.

Each chapter is short. It only took me two nights to read the whole thing and I could have finished it in one except I had an early start the next day. There are lots of recurring characters – some are straight out mafia; some are “colorful, local identities”; some are big name stars (The Rat Pack etc) and some are shady businessmen who saw a chance to make a lot of money in a big sandbox.

There is nothing too deep or dark in any of the stories. It is just a fun look at how the strip developed from nothing but the potential Bugsy Siegel saw to what it is now – a mecca for gambling, girls and a place where what happens there, stays there.

I enjoyed the author’s notes about he and his wife. They were regulars at the Sands and when that declined they moved on to the Riviera and the Flamingo. If you loved the movie “Casino”, you will recognize a lot of the people who became characters in that movie. Likewise Godfathers I and II. It is the Las Vegas we all wish was still there – if only for a weekend.

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Lamentation by Joe Clifford

Sometimes a book is just a quiet little thing. It sneaks up on you while you are reading it and when you are done, you close it and sit for a minute before realizing “Hey, I really, really liked that story.” This is one of those books. It is not long. I read it in one sitting.

Although this is billed as a mystery story, I think that label is misapplied. This is more of a character study of two brothers and the different roads they have traveled after the untimely death of their parents.

The main character, Jay, is kind of spinning his wheels in his small New Hampshire hometown. He has a child with a woman who moved out and is now living with another man – an ex bikie. Jay seems kind of unmotivated to make changes though he clearly expresses the thoughts that he needs to do something to engage the gears and move his life forward. He is working in a dead end job for a nice guy but the money is irregular and seasonal.

His brother is a former high school athlete, several years older than Jay with a troubled past and present. His dropping in and out of Jay’s life has caused friction with his ex and Jay is no longer willing to either trust or believe his brother who has basically become a drug addicted and addled street person.

The local police contact Jay to assist them in bringing in the brother. What follows is not so much a mystery as an unraveling. In small towns, secrets are often the stock and trade of families. Because everyone knows everyone, there are always disruptions that lie just below the surface and if they erupt, they have a tendency to rewrite the town’s history.

This is a slowly unfolding story bringing the actions of people in the past to meet their consequences in the present. These actions will either propel the individual characters into a positive forward motion or stop them dead in their tracks.

I loved the title and that is what drew me to the book. A lamentation is a passionate outpouring of grief or sorrow. The Lamentation in this book refers to a mountain and a bridge but the dictionary definition also applies. Through the grief comes hope.

I understand this is book one in the series but I can’t see how the main character can really go anywhere as a “detective” since that is not really what this book appears to be. I loved it as a stand alone story. It can bear its own weight well.

Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer

If you are a lit buff, there is nothing in these pages that will come as any surprise to you. The book is a fun, quick ride. Brief bios of all kinds of men (and a sprinkling of women) who led colorful and self-destructive lives that probably reduced their output by decades. Interspersed, this collection of addicts and train wrecks managed to write some of the greatest books in the world before departing this mortal coil.

Opium and laudanum play a prominent role in many of these writers lives. Second place is alcohol with all the rest of the pharmacopia falling back to a distant third. Sprinkle in some serious mental health issues among this group and you pretty much have your rogues gallery.

No bio is particularly long. A couple of pages is enough to hit the high points and to send you in the right direction if you want to delve further into an individual authors work and life. It’s a whose who- from Poe, to Coleridge, to Fitzgerald and Hemingway and right on up to gonzo journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson.

If you are a throwback romantic hoping that massive amounts of heroin and alcohol will feed your genius, then maybe this work is an inspiration. If you are more of realist though, the romance of these authors addictions wears off quite quickly when you realize that but for their crutch, they could have written so much more.

The true fun of the book is that it is a short read and its focus is on people who had a love affair with the written word. That is always and inspiration for any writer. It also helps to put in perspective the truth that most writers are not out there making a million dollars. Many times the work of these authors reached their greatest audience after their untimely deaths. Take heart – sobriety might just help you get your work out there. If not, you might be a rich corpse!

Blood on the Moon by James Ellroy

If you are an Ellroy fan, you will probably notice his style in this the first of the “Lloyd Hopkins” books. Set in the seedy parts of Los Angeles Lloyd Hopkins is a hard boiled detective. The whole tone of the book is noir and Ellroy has a style of writing that is very visceral – it drives home the violence and the darkness with such authority that you don’t realize how tense you have been until you put the book down.

Lloyd is married but he has a complicated relationship with his wife and several other women in the book including his daughters. Ellroy’s mother was killed in Los Angeles around the time the Black Dahlia murder occurred. There is a lot of Freudian working it out with the mother figure in all his books but the true delight of that is that the women are complicated.

This book extends that theme. There are the hopeful Hollywood wannabe’s; the sometimes straight sometimes lesbian poetess; the loving wife who is getting fed up with Lloyd and the daughters whose bed time stories consist of Lloyd descriptions of all the gruesome goings on in the City of Angels.

To top off the mayhem, there is a crazy serial killer and a bunch of people both legal and illegal tainted by all the sex, drugs, violence and corruption that Hollywood can offer. Included in this group is Lloyd’s actual family which is as complicated and dysfunctional as Lloyd.

This a solid three and a half stars. It’s early Ellroy so the style is still raw but you can see the beginnings of what will be classic Ellroy writing style. Good book.

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

I absolutely loved this book. Hands down, without any equivocating, this is a five star book. I literally could not put it down. I had the novel blues after I finished – you know the ailment where you just finished a really fabo, on time novel and then its over? I was lucky, I found a couple of books afterwards that brought me down slowly but I am on a mission to read everything this author has written.

As for this book….the story is very multi-layered and complex. Art is a DEA agent. He is Mexican American and grew up in the barrios of San Diego. He has partners that he is enmeshed with and cares about but at the same time, he is on a mission to bring down the Mexican drug cartels. Through the course of the novel, he will travel the world following the money and the drugs and the players. He will lose some of himself, destroy some relationships and develop others. He has a complicated history with some of the members of the cartel.

The cartel building part of the story was a la ‘The Godfather”. One corrupt cop has figured out how to use the political and military regimes and machines in Mexico to exploit the black market drug trade. What starts off as penny ante dealing, evolves over a thirty year period that the book covers, into a multi-headed hydra. Three individuals, two of them being the Don’s nephews, control all of Mexico and the United States with their hands also dipped into several Central American countries.

Into this mix enter the CIA and the Italian Mafia. Both have vested interests in keeping the drug trade active and healthy. The CIA does so for both control and to create political stability or instability in countries where the United States has particular interests. NAFTA trade plays a role, as does supporting or decimating regimes that no longer serve United States interests. The Italian Mafia is working with both the cartels and the CIA. Their interests are primarily monetary but there is a whole other sub-story involving Irish and Italian control of Boston neighborhoods as well as the development in all groups of hit men.

Not to be eliminated from the complexities, the Catholic Church also plays an important role in the story. The main Padre is a powerful priest whose strong community development and social justice vision, not only pits him against the cartels but also propels his own position into an upward trajectory through the involvement and intervention of the Vatican. The Vatican benefits as the cartel and the mafia are highly Roman Catholic in nature and are often providing huge amounts of money to secure the cooperation of the church.

The last player in this piece is a high end escort. She goes from being a small time school girl prostitute in San Diego to being a highly paid companion of many of the men in power. In addition to this, she develops a very close relationship with the priest. Her character study is a real look into what money can and cannot buy as well as the complexities of the relationships and connections she makes in the world of the drug trade.

Although a work of fiction, this book really gets into the meat and potatoes of how these cartels operate and what each stakeholder has invested right down to their very lives. Great character studies, a ton of action and a wonderfully complicated plot that really engages you as a reader. The book was not easy to put down and I have to confess there were many nights when I was up until dawn because I just could not stop reading. I fully intend to get everything this author has done. What a writer!!! A five star book is hard to find and this is a five plus plus in my opinion!

Echo Park by Michael Connelly

As I mentioned in another review, I found this book on one of my shelves just as I started reading another book by this author with the same character. Now, normally, I wouldn’t jump straight into another book like that but I enjoyed the other read so much that I threw my self imposed rules out the window and read this one.

I was very glad I did. This book was written quite a while after the first one I read. The main character, Harry Bosch, had obviously evolved even more. At some point in his journey, he had quit the LAPD and had then returned to work in the Open-Unsolved Division. One of his former partners had joined him there.

They had revisited a murder case that was now thirteen years old. Harry had promised the parents he would solve it and he kept returning to the case files to review it on a regular basis. He had a suspect in mind and then…..

Well, a new case grabbed the public’s imagination. A serial killer had been caught red handed on his way to disposing of body parts after a kill. His attorney contacted an electioneering District Attorney and his over achieving Detective sidekick and promised the bodies of eleven other victims in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. One of those was Harry’s open case. Solved? Far from it!

From that point on the case heats up and goes in a variety of directions. Just like the last, what you think you know gets turned on its head. At this stage in his work, the author has really polished his techniques – this book is longer but all that meant was that I stayed up even later to finish it! I will find Harry Bosch again, I am sure of that. But this is a great vacation read!!

Angel’s Flight by Michael Connelly

I was given this book and told it was very good. It went to the pile and waited patiently for me to get around to it. I was not disappointed at all. In the course of reading this book, I happened to glance at a shelf (one of several) that holds “to be read” books, in addition to the pile. I was surprised to find another by the same author with the same character. So I read them both!

This review is for Angel’s Flight. Harry Bosch is a detective who works out of the Hollywood Division. He is called in on a case in another division because the victim is a prominent local attorney who handles cases concerning suits against the LAPD. There is currently a case lodged against police in the division in which he is killed so other officers are called in to handle it.

Bosch’s team is also diverse. African American, gay and older detectives comprise the team which the upper brass choose to use as window dressing as the case is high profile in nature.

From that point forward the action is pretty much non-stop. What unfolds is layers and layers of corruption within the department that involve lots of ass covering exercises. The team are at times thwarted in their lines of inquiry by red tape and politics.

There is also a very interesting investigation into the internet and how people are able to subvert pages to cover others. One of the detectives is very adept at forensic computer techniques and that was eye opening and informative in itself. Also, a sub plot involving Harry’s short lived and crumbling marriage, adds layers of stress to the detective that keep him guessing not just about the case but about his own private life.

I had a hard time putting it down. Let’s just say I had a few late, late nights! You have been warned…..