Friday, August 15, 2008

No House Limit by Steve Fisher (Hard Case Crime)

Joe Martin runs the Rainbow's End, the only independent casino left in Las Vegas; the rest are all run by the Syndicate (better known to the uninitiated as the Mafia). The Syndicate wants Joe out of business, so they surreptitiously challenge him on his own turf — by sending Bello, the world's greatest gambler, to win millions of dollars at Joe's craps table.

With Bello on their side, how can they lose? But a man like Joe Martin doesn't get where he is by taking unnecessary risks. He's got an ace in the hole of his own, namely an innocent schoolteacher from Utah.

Steve Fisher, screenwriter of such beloved films as Lady in the Lake and Song of the Thin Man — and Oscar-nominated for Destination Tokyo for his original story — was the author of over 100 novels, as many screenplays for film and TV, and nearly 1,000 short stories. Any author who can produce that much understands the need for a brisk pace, and his novel No House Limit doesn't let up from the start. If other Fisher works are this briskly paced, I'll definitely be on the lookout for more.

But the main reason for No House Limit's success is the atmosphere. Fisher's portrait of Las Vegas in the 1950s, especially the casino environment, is so rich and detailed, it's a character in itself. I would have believed that he was a denizen of the city himself. But according to his son Michael's afterword, he just really enjoyed gambling — the rest came from research, in particular time spent with famous real-life gambler Nick the Greek.

The portrayal of the inside of a busy casino: the overlapping voices (game callers on top of conversations) and the loneliness of crowds combines with his insightful characterizations to make No House Limit — which is essentially a simple story, well told — into a memorable reading experience.

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