Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: The Secret History of Las Vegas

 The Secret History of Las Vegas: A Novel 

Synopsis: Before veteran detective Salazar can retire, he's determined to solve a recent spate of murders of Las Vegas's homeless. On Halloween he encounters a pair of conjoined twins wading in Lake Mead and is sure he has apprehended the killers. Their names: Water, strikingly handsome, and Fire, disfigured and sharp-tongued - members of a sideshow on the outskirts of Las Vegas called the Carnival of Lost Souls. When they can't explain the container of blood found near their car, Salazar enlists the help of Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African transplant who specializes in the study of psychopaths.
Dr. Singh is conducting a series of shadowy experiments on violent behavior for a local institute. Over the course of three days, as Sunil tries to crack the twins, the implications of his study grow darker and it becomes clear that he has his own demons to reckon with. Fire and Water, whose deformity is the result of their mother's exposure to radiation from the U.S. government's nuclear testing in the Nevada desert, have their own revenge in mind. 
Suspenseful until its final pages, The Secret History of Las Vegas is Chris Abani's most accomplished work to date, with his trademark visionary prose and a striking compassion for the inner lives of outsiders.

Reading the synopsis, this book sounds like it will be amazing. A murder mystery where a pair of Siamese twins are the suspects? It just has to be good. What could possibly go wrong?

Hoo boy.

This book is billed as a murder mystery. After reading it I thought to myself What murder mystery? The book does not focus on what is described in the synopsis enough for it to even be a major plot point. This is what the book is actually about: Dr Sunil Singh did some really bad things in South Africa during apartheid and now another guy from South Africa is seeking revenge on him. That's it. The Siamese twins who are by far the most interesting characters in the book are barely mentioned after the first few chapters. There's a 'twist' at the end that I suppose is supposed to be shocking but in all honesty it wasn't. It was kind of boring actually.

I couldn't really get a feel for any of the characters. Even though Abani provided his main characters with a lot of back story, it seemed forced. I don't want to be told about a character through pages and pages of exposition. I want characters to be revealed to me as I read through what they do, say, and think. But to be honest, dialogue wouldn't have really helped because it was unnatural and clunky. I can't count how many times I thought while reading this book: Nobody talks like this. Seriously, one of the characters says to Dr Singh at one point: 'What? There was something in your look.' Who talks like that? The characters didn't so much talk to each other as spout information at one another. They were all like walking Wikipedia entries.

At this point I will be discussing revealing plot points. If you don't want any spoilers, read no further.

The mystery of the murders of the homeless men is revealed to committed by, not Fire and Water, but by the institute that Dr Singh works at. They rounded up a bunch of homeless men, did a bunch of psychiatric experiments on them, and when they didn't work, they killed them or let them die, I don't remember exactly. But they dumped them and Detective Salazar was investigating their deaths. Here's where it could have gotten really interesting: Salazar calls in Dr. Singh to help him investigate the case. Dr Singh knew what happened to the homeless men, he was partially responsible for it. And he deliberately mislead Salazar. Now we, as readers, just know that this is leading up to Salazar finding out the truth somehow and there will be some epic showdown between the detective and the doctor where the word 'betrayal' is thrown around a lot.

Can you say missed opportunity?

Detective Salazar never finds out that Dr Singh helped kill a bunch of homeless people. Instead he saves Dr Singh from the revenge-seeking South African guy. That's the climax of the book.

I'm sorry, but that is just stupid. Chris Abani actually had a chance for some really interesting conflict and he let it just slip away.

Reading The Secret History of Las Vegas was a frustrating experience. I was tempted several times just to put it down and walk away. But I like to finish books I start and it is not impossible for me to go from hating a book to actually liking it. Sadly, that didn't happen with this book. There's not much else I can say about it except I'm glad it's over with and I can move on to something else.

Just a quick note: I know this is a negative review but just because I didn't like this book, doesn't mean that you won't. Even though I might not recommend this book, I highly recommend forming your own opinions. 

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