Any book on the history of organized crime in America needs at least a chapter devoted to Las Vegas. It’s an incredible place–not that I’d want to live there as I’m not thrilled by desert living, and neither am I attracted to living in its artificiality. I’ve been there, of course, and it’s quite an experience–a decadent Disneyland for adults–what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Sin City, and all that. The Vegas setting of Robert Randisi’s novel The Way You Die Tonight sounded attractive…
It’s 1964, and the protagonist of the tale is Eddie Gianelli (Eddie G.), a pit boss at the Las Vegas Sands hotel. He’s a fixer of sorts, so his boss, hotel owner Jerry Entratter, asks Eddie G to host Edward G. Robinson who’s coming to Vegas to research his upcoming role in The Cincinnati Kid. It’s a request straight from Frank Sinatra, and Eddie G., who admires Edward G. Robinson, is only too happy to comply. In addition to showing Edward G. Robinson Vegas and high stakes poker games, Eddie G. is approached for information by a very eccentric, and well-guarded Howard Hughes who’s in town to buy some casinos.
“Vegas is your town,” Hughes said. “I need somebody who knows this town in and out. That’s you.”
“Is that what you’ve been told?”
“It’s what I know from all the information I’ve gathered,” Hughes said
But when Jerry’s secretary, Helen Simms is murdered (suicide according to the cops), Eddie G. starts investigating on his own with help from Vegas PI Danny Bardini and pal, Jerry Epstein (all three hail from Brooklyn). Gradually the portrait of Helen Simms, known to be a quiet, modest woman, is replaced, and instead Helen seems to have been a woman who led a secret life.
The murder mystery, along with the characters of Jerry, Danny and Eddie G, for this reader, are the most interesting aspects of the book, but the crime jostles for space with Eddie G’s job hosting Robinson. Any crime novel which features a series character spends time on the crime and time on the protagonist’s personal life; it’s a delicate balance. While interesting information and history about Vegas is folded subtly and carefully into the story, for this reader, the references to real life people–Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson etc, big stars who dropped into the frame with their own scenes, began to feel like over-kill name-dropping and overwhelmed the rest of the tale. Vegas and its casinos present a rich backdrop for crime and murder; the fictionalization of real icons from the period seemed too much, but then their presence is the point of the series. The Rat Pack Series is very popular with a solid fan base, so I appear to be a minority opinion.