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The Secret History of Las Vegas Paperback – 7 Jan 2014


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A gritty, riveting, and wholly original murder mystery from PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author Chris Abani Before he can retire, Las Vegas detective Salazar is determined to solve a recent spate of murders. When he encounters a pair of conjoined

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Amazon.com: 46 reviews
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Myth and truth 7 Jan. 2014
By TChris - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Las Vegas is a city of fantasy, making it a fitting setting for a novel that uses elements of myth and fantasy to illuminate truth and reality. With casinos that replicate Paris and Venice and ancient Egypt, Las Vegas (Chris Abani theorizes) is searching for a myth that will validate its existence, a link to a place with deeper and more substantial roots. Abani posits that Las Vegas has given birth to "submerged and subterranean cultures" filled with "the fevered men who so desperately wanted those myths to be true." It is also a city that attracts lost souls. Myths and lost souls provide the background for The Secret History of Las Vegas, an original and perceptive blend of humor and drama, fantasy and reality.

In one of the most interesting openings to a novel I've recently encountered, fused twin sons are born in the Nevada desert, two miles from an exploding nuclear bomb. Their mother names them Fire and Water. Years later, Water is a handsome adult, physically normal except for the head and partial body of Fire that sprouts from his side.

Meeting Fire and Water unnerves Detective Salazar. He wants to detain them as suspects in a series of unsolved killings but, lacking good cause, decides to hold them for observation by a mental health expert. He calls upon the novel's central character, Sunil Singh, a researcher at a private Las Vegas institute who is studying psychopathic behavior. Half Zulu, half Indian, and displaced from South Africa, Sunil thinks of Las Vegas as home. It is, at least, fertile ground for his study of psychopaths.

Beyond its beginning, I won't describe the plot, lest its craziness put you off (and also to avoid spoiling the pleasure of the surprises it holds). Suffice it to say that it involves past and present loves stories and a hit man who has a grudge against Sunil. At times it seems like a parody of a thriller. At other times it becomes a serious novel about race and injustice. The characters are just as unpredictable as the plot. No matter how familiar they are (the hooker with the heart of gold, the police detective on the verge of retirement who is frustrated by an unsolved crime), Abani twists them into less recognizable (but strangely believable) shapes. Fire and Water are hilarious, at least if you appreciate humor that is offbeat, slightly absurdist, and somewhat dark. Water responds to questions with not-quite-relevant trivia while Fire responds with sarcasm.

Yet for all the humor, The Secret History of Las Vegas is a serious commentary on the impact of apartheid on its victims. While races around the world are slowly blending together into a "sepia of tolerance," Sunil's life in South Africa was shaped by the racial classifications marked on South African identity documents carried by nonwhites, "the backbone of apartheid." The dangers and indignities of Soweto, the evils that he saw and that he perpetrated, are never far removed from Sunil's memories. At the same time, he has grown weary of people who wear trauma like a badge, vying for the distinction of belonging to the group that suffered the most, as if "tallying an impossible math" will arrive at a meaningful result.

In addition to the myths of Las Vegas, Sunil recalls the myths of South Africa, particularly the Sorrow Tree, which "could bear everyone's pain for a short while." All the novel's characters are bearing pain but they manage to find respites from pain, often by coming together, as people do when they gather at the Sorrow Tree. Sunil is searching for his own myth, the fictional story that will explain the truth of his life. Abani furthers that theme by incorporating a fairy tale from Sunil's childhood that is a thinly veiled version of a true story. Myth, illusion, fantasy, and varying versions of reality all stir together in Abani's fresh, eccentric, funny, moving, and thoroughly entertaining novel.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A splendid blend of thriller and literary fiction 12 Jan. 2014
By G. Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If I were to attempt to describe this book briefly, the characters would sound absurd (conjoined twins suspected of being serial killers, a Sikh South African psychiatrist who works for a top-secret U.S. Army research institute) and the plots cliché (retiring cop wants to solve a case that haunts him, psychiatrist can't decide between two women and has unresolved mother issues). But Abani is such a brilliant and beautiful writer that these characters and plots come together in a unique and utterly enjoyable blend of literary fiction and crime thriller. I wanted to savor the writing, but I also wanted to stay up all night to find out how everything was resolved as soon as possible. I highly recommend this book to anyone who can stand a bit of sex and some graphic violence (which is anything but gratuitous, as it is often describing horrors in South Africa in the psychiatrist's past).
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A Heart-pounding Crime Thriller And A Brilliant Thesis on History 7 April 2014
By ainehi edoro - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The Secret History of Las Vegas is an unsettling exploration into those violent and catastrophic moments that punctuate our sense of history as the story of human progress. It tells the story of Sunil Singh, a half Sikh, half Zulu South African psychiatrist who comes to Vegas, desperate to forget his involvement in the torture and death of many during the apartheid regime. In Vegas, Sunil is still plying the old trade. But this time, he conducts experiments on apes as part of a research project funded by the US military—to produce a serum that can manipulate psychopathic behaviors in humans. One day, he receives a call from Detective Salazar who is investigating a fresh case of dead bodies of homeless men found in dumps. While Salazar is trying to figure out whether these bodies are connected to a similar incident two years before, he finds a pair of conjoined twins in the vicinity of the body dump. Hoping that they are the serial killers he’s been looking for, Salazar asks Sunil to evaluate the deformed twin for psychopathic behavior. Sunil, Salazar, and the conjoined twin—named Fire and Water—become intertwined in a convoluted skein of stories bearing out the link between history, violence, and secrecy.

Abani’s novel has all the titillating elements that make crime fiction captivating—murders, prostitution, torture, forbidden love, government conspiracies, and so on. These elements are blended with an artistic sleight of hand that only a seasoned literary craftsman can muster (Secret History is Abani’s 4th novel). But what makes Abani’s novel so intensely gripping yet conceptually layered is the underlying metaphor of secrets. In Abani’s expert hands, the crime-fiction plot, driven by the secrecy of a violent crime, becomes a conceit for history itself.

As Sunil observes, “even in revelation,” Las Vegas is “obscured.” It’s “brightness was its own kind of night.” The cities we love the most are often those that, like Las Vegas, cast over our eyes a magical veil made of bright lights and big dreams. How do we get to the heart of a such a dissembling city? How do we unveil the darkness behind all that light? Abani’s novel offers us a way. It says to chase those nearly forgotten stories about the past that have become little more than “a confounding mix of hoaxes and urban legends”—stories about underground nuclear testing causing birth deformities, stories about desert ghost towns populated by this deformed humanity, stories about human bodies tortured and discarded in shallow graves during South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Abani’s novel seems to suggest that a true study of history—something that only the novelist can do— is divination. The truth about history does not reside in the hard, clear facts. These so-called outlandish narratives about the past of a city—every city has them—are divinatory beads on which we can “read the mind of the landscape, uncover its intentions and motives, and recalibrates is secret histories.” Abani’s novel is simultaneously a heart-pounding thriller and a brilliant thesis on history.

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
An Uncanny Mystery within a Gilded View of History 6 Feb. 2014
By Viviane Crystal - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Fire and Water, two conjoined twins, lose their mother at a very young age. Having absorbed the radiation from the nuclear experiments conducted in Nevada, she is dying of cancer and chooses her own exit. One of the twins speaks normally in response to conversation with others but the other refuses to look at others and repeats factual statements about random subjects, sometimes at a normal pace, sometimes rapidly in a way that seems to the reader to be associated with extreme stress being experienced from other person’s questions or comments. Fire and Water are now being, in a sense, abused by two doctors who think they would make excellent subjects for drug experimentation. Subtlety and very real, direct statements evoke anger and poignant feelings in the reader as this part of the surrealistic plot unfolds!
Salazar, a detective, and Sunil, a research physician, unite with a common goal. Someone has been dumping bodies in the outskirts of Las Vegas. Salazar is determined to prove it is the twins who are guilty of murder, but Sunil gradually comes to some very powerful realizations about everyone involved in this criminal investigation, including Salazar and Sunil’s boss. What makes this a fascinating journey is that for Sunil, in some unexplainable way, it brings back horrific memories of his family and the hell of apartheid practices in Africa – whether that be in Soweto, Johannesburg, or a little known place notorious for its death camps!
Mixed in between the investigation and memories are exquisite stories, folk tales, scenic descriptions and more delights that turn this into a very literary story about how memories and histories shape us. Even the ghost towns left behind after the nuclear explosions are explored with grace and grit!
When we refuse to face both the lovely and the horrific, we become like the character Eskia, who is hunting Sunil with a psychopathic purpose. When we face them, as we see in this novel, there is truly a chance for forgiveness and change, redemption, salvation, call it what you will!
Years ago, this reviewer remembers Bishop Desmond Tutu beginning a campaign to get the perpetrators of severe violence meet with their victims and what a healing process that turned out for the majority of those who responded or at least tried to respond. This novel by Chris Abani reminded me of that period of African history but unlike that process, the reader here is invited to join the journey, perhaps vicariously if that is possible, and is left with questions and ponderings that bring some understanding and some soul-searching about the past and present, our history!
Chris Abani is a literate, sensitive author who brooks no fools with platitudes or mundane commentary. Even tough-minded Salazar in a unique fashion cannot help but be changed because of this exploration of a secret history in Las Vegas and that of Water, Fire, Sunil, Asia (a loving prostitute, and Sheila. All are richer for their large or small part in the challenges wrought by their interaction. Superb historical and contemporary fiction! Highly recommended!
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A Compelling and Gritty Mystery! 20 Jan. 2014
By Stephanie Ward - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
4.5 Stars

'The Secret History of Las Vegas' is a compelling and gritty mystery that takes readers on a thrill ride across the world to solve the case of a serial killer. There are several smaller story lines mixed into the main plot, which makes the book multilayered and mind bending. All the different stories seem disjointed when we first read about them, but it becomes increasingly clear the further into the book how they are all connected. I loved seeing how the puzzle pieces of the mystery fit together to leave the reader questioning everything they thought they knew and then having it all turned completely upside down. There were tons of fantastic twists and turns that kept me guessing throughout the entire book - which is always a sure sign of an incredible author. The book's characters, multiple settings, twists and turns, and the smaller story lines woven together make this story one that warrants more than a single reading. It's one of those books that you have to read a few times to pick up on all the clues and nuances that you missed each time before. The writing was impeccable with intense descriptions and vivid imagery. I found myself mesmerized by the way the author wrote as well as the story he told so much that I felt I myself was amid the characters in the book. With so many different layers, unbelievable twists, and flawed characters - this is a book that will hook readers within the first page. Very highly recommended for fans of mysteries as well as readers who want to shake things up and read something altogether fresh and original. I will definitely be reading the rest of the author's books and re-reading this one while we await his next release.

Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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