The secret history of Las Vegas : a novel

by Christopher Abani

Paperback, 2014




New York : Penguin Books, 2014.


Determined to solve a series of murders before he retires, detective Salazar turns to Sunil Singh, a South African transplant who specializes in psychopaths, to help determine if a pair of conjoined twins he apprehended are the killers.

Media reviews

In the end, what lifts the novel is its energy, the audacity of Abani’s imagination, and most of all the breadth of vision that supplies its moral context. “The Secret History of Las Vegas” has a global sweep and — what’s often aspired to, but rarely achieved in a novel — a feeling of thematic unity. Fire and Water may perform at the Carnival of Lost Souls, but the true lost souls of the book are the ones with not physical but moral deformities. Fire and Water’s relationship finally becomes the emblem of a mutuality that has vanished from Sunil’s life. The most obviously damaged turn out to be the purest of heart.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bowedbookshelf
The lavishly talented poet, novelist, playwright, and publisher Chris Abani began his writing career in Nigeria at sixteen with a satirical political novel, Masters of the Board, and followed up with political plays meant to be performed on the street. He was jailed in Nigeria three times in the 1980s, then moved to England and onward to the United States. He continues to accumulate awards for his edgy poetry and prose, publishes The Black Goat Poetry Series, an imprint of Akashic Press, and teaches English at Northwestern University. Abani was raised Roman Catholic and while a teen studied in the seminary.

Abani’s latest novel is about betrayal and illusion, and how sometimes they might be the same thing. Humans betray all the time, intentionally or not, and we recognize the guilt or pain the characters confront as they examine large and small betrayals in their own lives. Sunil is a mixed-race South African transplant to Las Vegas where he works in a government lab, the Desert Palms Institute, as a scientist and co-director of a research project.
“Now Sunil thought of Las Vegas as home. That’s the thing about having always been a displaced person; home was not a physical space but rather an internal landscape…[though] Vegas is really an African city…a grandiose tomb to itself…Just like in every major city across Africa, from Cairo to his hometown of Johannesburg, the palatial exteriors of the city architecture barely screen the seething poverty, the homelessness, and the despair that spread in townships and shantytowns as far as the eye could see.”

Sunil knows something about a body dump just outside Vegas city limits near Lake Mead. Soon-to-retire Detective Salazar wants to solve the miserable case of multiple murders that has stretched on for years and, when he comes upon a possibly sociopathic pair of conjoined twins near the site, he calls Sunil for help.

It is here that Abani shows his particular sensitivity and skill in recognizing and representing the lives of outsiders. He parallels Sunil’s story as a Black Indian growing up in South Africa (doubly estranged from powerful White society under apartheid) with the conjoined twins who are part of The Downwinder Nation, a group committed to the eradication of dangerous military research in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Many of the Downwinders feel betrayed by their government because they are victims of that research, manifesting mutations as a result of being improperly protected from nuclear testing.

Illusion is another theme that runs through the narrative, and the conjoined twins, as freaks in the sideshow of a circus, understand and exploit this aspect of Las Vegas. Sunil himself has photos on the wall of his office that show zebu, the cattle of his childhood, so uniquely marked with spots that from a distance they look like flocks of birds resting on hillside, a spotted Rubik’s Cube, or a tarot deck. The Desert Palms Institute, supposedly working for the good of mankind, may actually be harming it.

Abani writes a dark story about the underside of glittery Las Vegas but ultimately the story is redemptive. Eskia trails Sunil from South Africa with a vendetta of his own, and Brewster, Sunil’s boss, rules the lab with an unethical expediency. Neither escape the traps they have set for others.

Sunil has more than one woman in love with him, and he is capable of loving each. Sheila is a woman who works with him, and Asia is a prostitute. Sunil has ambiguous feelings about Asia’s work, but resolves it by explaining to Asia that “’prostitute’ comes from the Latin verb prostituere”. As a verb, it could mean that one is a prostitute only while having sex for money, rather than all the time as when the word is used as a noun. Sunil is not granted resolution in the matter of the women so that we wonder at the end if these folks will reappear in a novel yet to come.

Abani’s great skill--what sets his work apart from many others--is rooted in his use of language, and his deep and abiding humanity in view of great inhumanity.

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LibraryThing member ozzer
This novel seems to be a detective mystery in the noir genre, but is in fact serious literature about a large swath of human miseries including racism, prostitution, physical deformity, war, torture, and violence. The mood is highly pessimistic. The setting in Las Vegas at first seems almost incidental, but Abani uses the city in a role much like the “sorrow tree”—a place to temporarily hang your burdens. Sunil’s mother—Nurse Dorothy—tells the tale of the “sorrow tree” where people are temporarily relieved of the burdens of their sorrows by hanging them on the tree but are required to remove them before leaving. They are given the option of adopting the sorrows of others, but none do. Instead they prefer to carry their own burdens. This seems to be a metaphor for much of the sorrow that is being borne by the characters in this novel.

The protagonist, Dr. Sunil Singh, carries scars from a life of ethical compromises and redemption for him seems almost impossible. Likewise, the list of the moral failings of the lesser characters in the novel and their varied coping mechanisms is long. Asia is a prostitute who sees her role as a mirror for the fantasies of her clients. Although she finds it appealing, a normal life with Sunil is not in the cards for her and, when threatened with harm, she seeks sanctuary in a brothel. Detective Salazar seeks redemption for his professional failings by meticulously building model boats that he sets alight—the image of the Viking funeral seems obvious. Water carries the burden of Fire—his much loved conjoin twin—but adopts a most unusual coping mechanism that cannot be revealed here. Eskia seeks revenge for the death of his lover, Jan, through murder and torture, but seems incapable of recognizing his own complicity in the conflicts surrounding apartheid and focuses instead on Sunil out of jealousy. Fred and the “Downwinders” seek revenge for the human toll of nuclear testing by sabotaging government supported war projects, actions that carry their own devastating toll as revealed in the novel’s climax.

The plot benefits both from short chapters that force the pace and revelations of Sunil’s backstory that are more slowly developed. However, it suffers from a rather abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion.
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LibraryThing member bookmuse56
Splendid! Was my thought when I finished the last hauntingly suspenseful page of this intensely intimate novel exploring the human soul seeking redemption, revenge and acceptance to the question what do we owe to others and ourselves for their roles in our lives.
While I have read other Abani’s novels in the past, I was not quite sure what to expect as this book seemed it would a departure from his other work. So I was pleasantly surprised when discovering this was much more than a standard mystery story and what initially looks like separate storylines (serial killer, atomic testing, apartheid) effortlessly intertwine around your emotions as you are folded into the characters world. As one of the character states – “There is always blame, he said. There has to be, what is life without it?”
The lyrically assured prose is both beautiful and bold in a bracingly unexpected manner as the tightly-plotted storyline deals with people who are often voiceless until they disturb the tranquility of our charmed lives.
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LibraryThing member zmagic69
This is a hard book to review for two reasons;
1. I don't want to give away too much of what the book is about.
2. The book is unlike anything I have read in a long time.
This book is not really about Las Vegas it just happens to be the setting for the story. It is more about apartheid in South Africa both during its reign and what happened to South Africa after and it's effects on a psychiatrist who is one of the main characters of the book. It is about the downwinders (these were the people who lived in the fallout area of the United States nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. It is about a soon to be retired detective trying to solve a mystery for the last two years. And. It is about damaged people who somehow. Continue on.
I know this sounds like a jumbled mess and in many authors hands it would be, but not in this case. The book. Was excellent. Why 4 stars and not 5? The ending is just a little too convenient. It really would be a 4 1/2 star book.
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LibraryThing member danhammang
Unusual characters, unusual plot, excellent evocation of place. Deserved the Edgar.
LibraryThing member Cherylk
I read this book back when it came out. I just realized that I never got around to writing my review of this book. Not because I did not like this book but because I loved this "freakin" book. It was both a combination of awesomeness and freaky. I was so in awe of what I read that I needed to digest everything before I wrote a review. Although I must admit in the beginning I was not sure what I was reading. Yet, the further I read the more I liked the story and the characters. This book has the feel of American Horror Story. A favorite show of mine. Water and Fire are like ying and yang but they complement each other. Detective Salazar is another strong character. He started out closed minded but by the end he and I were both open minded. This is a must read.… (more)
LibraryThing member LoisB
Strange is the word I would use to describe this book. It was compelling and suspenseful, but I felt somewhat disjointed while reading it, possibly due to the author's aversion to quotation marks! The book touches on a lot of difficult subjects - physical deformity, apartheid, prostitution, nuclear testing, and medical ethics. I can't say that I would recommend it to everyone, but if you are looking for something a little offbeat and can handle the sensitive subject matter, you will enjoy this book.

I received this book as a giveaway from the publisher.
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