Ever wonder what living in Las Vegas is really like? Here’s a top 10 list of books written by people who really know Sin City from the inside.
Corruption. Bribery. Death threats. Elected officials seeking to enrich themselves rather than serve the public — facing the one man with the guts, determination and steel will to stand up to them and see justice done. This is Tenacity, the real-life story of Ron Coury, a Las Vegas resident of nearly five decades, who took on the powers pulling the levers of gambling, transportation and industry in Las Vegas . . . and won. Along the way, Coury was forced to fight bullies, the Mob, City Hall (literally) and even the Big C, all in service to his Marine Corps credo, failure is not an option. Tenacity reads like a blockbuster movie that will anger, thrill and ultimately inspire with the powerful message that even when the fix is in, the good guys sometimes come out on top.
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
This best-selling #1 IndieNext novel paints a profoundly moving and genuine picture of Las Vegas. Based on a real tragedy that happened in Henderson in 2008, it’s presented through the viewpoints of four people: a middle-aged woman, a military veteran, a social worker and a young Albanian boy. As these well-drawn characters navigate the aftermath of the incident that took the life of the boy’s mother, the Las Vegas well-known to residents — but usually invisible to outsiders — is revealed with accurate and often poignant clarity. Because of its inspiring theme, this book was selected by cities all over the country for “One City, One Book” programs, making it a true breakout and a wonderful Vegas ambassador. In the wake of the tragedy of October 1, 2017, this uplifting story of community resonates more than ever.
The Theory of Insanity by Rick Newberry
Any novel that opens with the death of the main character in the first sentence is a real grabber. The Theory of Insanity hooked me right out of the gate and never let go. After eight failed attempts, security expert Brooks Davis and his spirit guide Samantha are given one final chance to save the world from nuclear annihilation in this multidimensional fantasy that takes us from Vegas to heaven, hell and beyond. Author Rick Newberry keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace with relatable characters, crackling dialogue, cliffhanger chapter endings, wry asides and a craftsman’s skill at juggling the light and dark elements. The satisfying ending leaves the door open for a sequel. If so, I’m placing my order now!
Getting off on Frank Sinatra by Megan Edwards
In this winner of the 2018 Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award for mystery, reluctant sleuth and recent Vegas arrival Copper Black investigates the death of a local philanthropist. I enjoyed it as a well-crafted whodunit, but what made it even more engaging is that the book presents an insider’s look at the real Las Vegas, including a notorious “party house” built by a mobster, a renegade desert tortoise, Liberace memorabilia, the Neon Museum, and a number of other local landmarks and neighborhoods. While I did want to find out who killed the altruistic founder of an exclusive private school, I enjoyed Copper’s boyfriend and career challenges and her delightfully dysfunctional family just as much. And if you’re wondering about the title, you’ll find out all about it on page one!
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg
A legendary Chicago hitman runs afoul of his associates, goes on the lam and hides out as a rabbi in this darkly hilarious novel from Tod Goldberg that makes good use of the Southern Nevada community of Summerlin during its early development in the late 90s. Goldberg deftly captures the yin and yang of Sin City with a delicate blend of high concept, comic relief and quirky characters while creating a real sense of menace and suspense. I especially enjoyed the “spiritual” conversations running the philosophical gamut from the Talmud to the Boss. Gangsterland is a page-turner. But I chose to read it slowly because I kept putting it down to savor a particular line or insight. I bet you’ll do the same.
A Justified Bitch by H.G. McKinnis
Discover a side of Las Vegas that rarely appears in literature in this captivating and original mystery. Hoarding cat lady Helen Taylor is the focus of a murder investigation when she finds a severed finger on her front porch, but she poses a big challenge to detectives. She prefers talking to Bobby, her long-dead husband — and Bobby talks back. From swap meets and mental hospitals to backstage on the Strip, this is a wild romp crafted by a talented author who knows Las Vegas as only a native can, especially one who has worked as a nude dresser at all the classic “feather shows.” This book won a 2018 IPPY award. I’d say it was well deserved.
Vegas Tabloid by P Moss
The kind of novel Quentin Tarantino would write if Tarantino wrote novels. From the Fabulous Hotel and Casino (yes, that’s its name) to the seediest dive bars, author and real-life saloon-keeper P Moss knows the territory and mines it for all it’s worth. Although it’s often hard to tell the good guys from the bad (another Las Vegas characteristic), Moss has an obvious affection for the freaks and losers who populate our city. This is my kind of roller coaster ride, with tough guy prose, cynical observations, a magician’s talent for misdirection, and double and triple crosses that keep you guessing until the last page (along with a few cringe-worthy moments you might not want to dwell on). Good twisted fun.
Life is a Country Western Song by H. Lee Barnes
Longtime local H. Lee Barnes is the dean of Southern Nevada fiction writers . . . and for good reason. I chose his latest book of short stories, Life is a Country Western Song, but I could just as easily have picked any of his other novels or essays or anthologies. Barnes has a gift for painting penetrating portraits of real people — your neighbors, your coworkers or the fellow on the stool next to you in the coffee shop — with spare, thoughtful language that has become his trademark. These earnest tales cut close to the bone without a hint of mawkishness, bringing the West into focus through characters struggling to make financial, emotional and physical ends meet. Whether it’s a damaged middle-aged woman starting over as owner of an emu ranch or a 60-something widower dipping his toe into the dating waters after decades, Barnes’ aptly named collection never disappoints.
The House Always Wins by Brian Rouff
What makes Brian Rouff’s novels so distinctive is they are written from a unique perspective, that of a true Vegas insider. No, not a pit boss or a blackjack dealer or a topless dancer, but a person who lives here, has a regular job here, falls in love here, has kids here and somehow manages to have a “normal” life in the weirdest city in the world. This is the story of one house in that city. It’s the kind of house you didn’t even think exists in Las Vegas; a creaky old Victorian mansion complete with a resident ghost. When the recently married couple buys the house and lovingly renovates it, their dream of raising a family is threatened by a greedy casino magnate who wants to tear it down and build a parking lot. But the ghost, a former mobster, comes to their rescue in this touching, funny, page-turner with a surprise twist at the end.
Bring Your Legs with You by Darrell Spencer
What Vegas work of fiction would be complete without the story of a homegrown boxer, highlighting the sport that helped put Sin City on the map (and vice versa). Bring Your Legs with You is a series of interrelated short stories, told from differing points of view, but all focusing on ex-heavyweight contender Tommy Rooke. Rooke, looking for one last shot and packing a mean punch, lives a “normal” life with an ex-wife, a kid and a construction business, while training for a comeback that may or may not happen. Although the plot sounds familiar, there’s not a cliché to be found. With its eavesdropping quality dialogue and lack of sentimentality, it’s easy to connect the hardboiled dots from Hunter Thompson to Lee Barnes (above) to Spencer without missing a round.