Do you long to travel to a crowded, garish desert resort where you can eat too much, drink to excess and throw away your money? Two breezy, fitfully amusing novels set in Las Vegas may convince you it's cheaper, safer and saner to do your sinning at home.
Deborah Coonts's first novel, Wanna Get Lucky?, introduces Lucky O'Toole, the gorgeous chief troubleshooter at the (fictitious) Babylon casino-resort on the Strip. There's plenty of trouble for her to shoot. In the novel's first sentence, one of the Babylon's cocktail waitresses is tossed from a helicopter and lands "smack in the middle of the pirates' lagoon" at a nearby pirate-themed hotel. Before Lucky can investigate, she must deal with a naked, 400-pound guest who has passed out in the Babylon's lobby. He turns out to be the Most Reverend Peterson J. Peabody, in town to attend a swingers' convention with his lovely wife. The arrival of the swingers coincides with a porn-industry convention, which induces a lot of dumb personal-anatomy jokes that probably shouldn't be repeated here (or anywhere else, for that matter).The death of the cocktail waitress is soon forgotten as Coonts focuses on a more urgent matter: her heroine's love life. Lucky, it seems, is unlucky in love. Adopting the mantra "Men are pigs; smart men are dangerous pigs," she spurns suitors and goes home at night to gossip with her neighbor and best friend, Teddie Divine, the Babylon's celebrated female impersonator.
All is well until one day handsome Teddie kisses Lucky. Beneath his wigs and ball gowns and hot pink boa, it emerges, this drag queen is unequivocally hetero. Lucky is enraptured: "Butterflies took flight at the sound of his voice." Coonts keeps us wondering if this odd couple will ever fall into bed, but she also arranges for the phone to ring incessantly at the crucial moment, reducing poor Teddie to moaning, "If I have to stop now, I'm going to explode."
There's more — regrettably, much more. Lucky treats her secretary, the dowdy Miss Patterson, to a makeover that enables the woman to snare a young hunk called the Beautiful Jeremy Whitlock. Lucky reconciles with her mother, Mona, who operates a (legal) brothel near Vegas, and at long last learns the identity of her father. Lucky attends a swingers' party that features errant donkeys, goats, and chickens. ("Any party that combined swingers and farm animals had me worried," she sensibly observes.) Intrepid Lucky shoots a 20-foot-long anaconda before it can crush one of her security guards. She even finds out who caused the rapid descent of that cocktail waitress and thwarts the villains seeking to take over her beloved Babylon.
Through it all, Coonts tries hard to fashion a madcap marathon of sex and hilarity, but mostly I just thought the nightmare would never end. "Wanna Get Lucky?" No, thanks.
Another wild and crazy romp that never quite comes off is Chris Ewan's The Good Thief's Guide to Vegas. Antihero Charlie Howard is a mystery writer who, to make it from one royalty check to the next, reinvents himself as a gentleman thief. He's British and mostly practices his sideline in Europe, but here he repairs to Vegas for a spot of fun.
Charlie proceeds to lose all his money at the poker table, to pick the pocket of the Fifty-Fifty casino's celebrated magician and to give the casino's decidedly unsympathetic owners the mistaken impression that he has stolen $140,000 worth of poker chips from them. They give him 24 hours to repay that amount — or pay with his life — which motivates Charlie to begin burglarizing hotel rooms in search of cash. He doesn't find much money, but he does find a young woman floating facedown in the magician's bathtub. And the magician has done a vanishing act of his own — perhaps the permanent result of having double-crossed those vengeful casino owners.
In desperation, Charlie recruits a seven-foot trapeze artist and a four-foot clown as his partners in crime. Slapstick, if not hilarity, ensues, with Charlie even remarking at one point that he feels trapped in a Keystone Kops movie. And did I mention the cringe-worthy humor? When a battalion of Elvis imitators wanders by, for example, Charlie reports seeing "the belly of the last guy bulging against his jumpsuit as though he was pregnant with Tom Jones."
Enough, already! Whatever you may think of Vegas, these novels are not insider's guides to its pleasures or pitfalls. Personally, I know only one book that portrays Sin City in all its essential strangeness: Hunter S. Thompson's drug-culture classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But that's another story.
Washington novelist and journalist Patrick Anderson is the author of The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. He regularly reviews new fiction for The Washington Post.