A Literary Author Gets Criminal in The Secret History of Las Vegas

the_secret_history_of_las_vegas_chris_abani_bookini-WEBThere’s a pile of dead bodies at the center of Chris Abani’s latest novel, but don’t go betting on a run-of-the-mill mystery. The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin, $16) is literary fiction from a celebrated practitioner, so dismiss any ideas of a by-the-numbers procedural. Instead, imagine a story so heavy with symbolism and so fascinated by the grotesque that the novel itself is a mystery that demands solving. The rotting corpses are both warning and clue. Nobody can escape their past, especially in Las Vegas.

Detective Salazar can’t figure out who’s been killing homeless people in Las Vegas and dumping their bodies in the desert. Close to retirement and desperately wanting to solve the case, he finds himself particularly haunted by the presence of a dead teenage girl in the pile of homeless men. When Salazar encounters a pair of conjoined Siamese twins named Fire and Water at Lake Mead with a large container of blood, he brings them in for questioning. Water is a full-grown man who speaks in terse, autistic bursts, while his brother Fire is chatty and loaded with personality despite being little more than a head and two arms protruding from Water’s chest. Selah, the twins’ mother, was irradiated by nuclear testing in the Nevada desert and committed suicide after contracting leukemia. The twins grew up in the care of Reverend Jacobs, who ran a local sideshow.

Salazar summons Dr. Sunil Singh from the Desert Palms Institute to examine the twins. Singh isn’t just an expert on psychology; he’s actually developing a serum to trigger psychotic breaks. Singh frequently finds himself at odds—philosophically and ethically—with his boss, Dr. Brewster, who seems completely focused on the institute’s government contracts. Singh is also struggling with his love for a prostitute named Asia, despite interest from Sheila, an attractive colleague. At the same, Singh is being tailed by a dangerous man from his past: Eskia, an operative of South Africa’s Security Services who knows Singh from apartheid-era South Africa and holds him responsible for some of the evil committed at Vlakplaas, an apartheid prison tasked with interrogating and executing opponents of the regime.

The Secret History of Las Vegas is loaded with twin themes and images. So many, in fact, that the novel occasionally reads like a literary seek and find. Every time I found a new pairing, I wanted to circle the words with a pen. Abani has no difficulty juggling multiple locales and plotlines, and there’s some clever writing worthy of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett (“His reflection in the glass made him uncomfortable, the way the honesty of show windows makes fat women flinch.”), but something kept me from feeling completely satisfied by the novel’s end. It’s a smart book with the added appeal of local color, but once I finished it and mined all it had to offer, I didn’t think much about it afterward. For a novel so filled to bursting with doubles, it doesn’t exactly pack twice the punch. ★★★★✩

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Christopher Buckley is probably best known for his novel Thank You for Smoking (1994), but I hesitate to call him a political satirist because that sounds like his funny bone doesn’t extend beyond Washington, D.C., and he’s far more talented than that. Buckley makes me cry with laughter, which is why I’m excited about his new collection of essays, But Enough About You (Simon & Schuster, $28). – M.S.K.