If you’re stuck in rush hour on Interstate 15, staring across the dusty smog at the same old mountain skyline, it may seem ludicrous to remember that the name “Vegas” evokes a seductive Babylon of flesh, booze and spectacle. But it does. Slap “Vegas” on your tsotchke—or in this case, your novel—and you’ve ignited the imagination of some working stiff in Omaha.
The blurb for James Patterson’s latest novel, Private Vegas (Little Brown, $30), punches the point: “Las Vegas is a city of contradictions: seedy and glamorous, secretive and wild, Vegas attracts people of all kinds—especially those with a secret to hide, or a life to leave behind.”
Right on. Sounds like a titillating way to kill time on a hop from McCarran to Philly.
Private Vegas is the ninth in Patterson’s Private series, which revolves around Afghan War vet Jack Morgan and his bazillion-dollar private investigation firm called—wait for it—“Private Investigations.”
What Patterson lacks in creative nomenclature, he makes up for in work ethic. His ability to knock out books is phenomenal. He has pumped out more than 100 novels, five of which have been adapted into films. Granted, all of the Private books are co-written, with Patterson’s copy-selling name splashed up top and his co-writers’—in this case, Maxine Paetro—given lesser billing. Still, the dude is a workhorse and has a genius marketing team. Indeed, Private Vegas is at the center of a promotional sales gimmick that underlines where Patterson’s writing and publishing priorities lie. For $294,038, you can buy a high-end date with James Patterson and a self-destructing copy of the book. Interested buyers, should visit TheMosThrillingReadingExperienceMoneyCanBuyByJamesPatterson.com.
He can clearly sell the book. But what’s between the covers? Private Vegas’ protagonist Jack Morgan cleans his manly self under six shower heads; drives a Lamborghini; has a smoking-hot on-again-off-again girlfriend; and runs a firm with facilities and staff that outstrip the LAPD, whose sad-sack public servants drive “gray Ford sedans” and presumably soap up under only one shower head. His is a land of universally beautiful women (except the token middle-aged “Mo-bot” who has an eidetic memory, plays WoW, and works as Private Investigation’s head of research), endless money and Get Smart-secured labs where Morgan employs a scientist named … Dr. Sci.
It is an adolescent boy’s comic book fantasy, and I am totally up for it. I am ready to tilt back in my coach seat and read about Morgan kicking in doors and taking down bad guys in the strobe-glow neon-noir of our city.
Unfortunately, the story runs in parallel plot strands, whose primary purpose seem to be to provide fodder for more Private novels. One thread has two serial rapists with diplomatic immunity and endless cash from the fictional Kingdom of Sumar roaming Beverly Hills for plump blondes. A second line involves the animosity between Morgan and his evil twin, Tommy Morgan, involving the framing of a loyal employee and war buddy, all of which takes place in L.A. A third strand gives us some angsty romance, jealousy and heart-searching between Morgan and his sometimes girlfriend … in L.A. Fourth, we follow Morgan and the Case of the Condom Car Bombs, in which our hero chases down whomever torched his precious Lambo in and around his tony L.A. neighborhood.
At this point you may have noticed a decidedly non-Vegas trend and are probably thinking, “Get to the Vegas point already. Where’s the flesh, booze and neon noir?”
It’s exactly what I said over and over again as I flipped from one three-page chapter to the next. Out of 120 chapters, 13 take place in Vegas, sort of. We don’t really get to “see” Vegas, since Patterson/Paetro just mention a location—such as the Bellagio or Spago at Caesars Palace or the Veer towers (“a monument to greed and excess”)— and then take the action inside to a sound-stage-in-print that could be anywhere, but is probably in L.A.
Those 13 or so Vegas chapters are part of plot No. 5, which is centered on mathematician Lester Olsen, an MIT wunderkind who “instead of going into industry, went to the land of no clocks and fast money.” Scheming Lester “made a few million at poker” but then “LVMPD found him unconscious in an alley with 10 broken fingers and the ace of spades in his shirt breast pocket. There was some writing on the card: ‘This is your last hand.’” So when Las Vegas finally does surface, it does so as a groan-worthy extended cliché. Besides, who calls Metro “LVMPD”?
So Olsen has been barred from playing cards at Vegas properties, but he is “still in the game … still friendly with the showgirls.” He now gambles with gorgeous young women, training them through his Love for Life consultancy to marry old rich dudes and then grab the inheritance after the oldsters drop dead (with help, if needs be). Olsen gets a 50 percent cut, of course.
Chapter 104 finally takes us around town, but not where you’d expect. In an unintentionally hilarious scene, Olsen packs the trunk of his getaway Impala with the trussed sexy Valerie Kenney, Morgan’s assistant/intern at Private Investigations. Patterson gives us the turn-by-turn drive to Sunset Park, where Olsen then noses the Impala up to the pond, drops a rock on the accelerator and watches it sink under the water, all unobserved because “it was a weekday and the sun was down” so “he should have the park to himself.” Because, you know, Sunset Park is always empty after dark.
Patterson/Paetro’s prose is concise and spare but also uninspired. It feels empty, like most of the characters in Private Vegas, who wear stick-on props. For example, there’s the L.A. trial judge who says nothing memorable but sports “a big diamond brooch at the neck of her robe” and brings her Chihuahua to court.
Woe to the reader who picked up the book because he saw a pair of dice, a glittering Strip and the word “Vegas” on the cover. Private Vegas is set in L.A. It is a disappointment to anyone looking to roam around our town with cutthroats, thieves, private dicks and dirty cops. It is a time killer in every sense. Worst of all, we never really get to see Vegas.