Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani – A Review

So called serious novelists who decide to write in genres are like any number of gods who, displeased with how mortals are conducting themselves, eschew their lofty echelons and make a descent to earth to restore order or cause havoc. In Secret History of Las Vegas, Mr Abani sheds his considerable serious novelist’s skin with assured steps towards his goal of writing a thriller, but often betrays his true nature. A pair of conjoined twins, fire and water, are found by a river where corpses have being routinely dumped; with no other lead to go on Detective Salazar decides to keep the twins in custody though he has no evidence to tie them to the crime. He enlists Sunil, a doctor in a shadowy institute whose research is “part psychological, part chemical” to detain the twins until he is able to figure out why they were at the scene.

The passages of perfectly pitched prose in the book sit awkwardly with the tepid dialogue in this book. Such dialogue maybe de rigueur in the genre, but written by a seasoned novelist it comes close to condescension to the reader.

This is the one case Salazar has been unable to solve in his entire career and he has now made it his last mission before retiring from the force. Of all involved he is the most driven to solve the case yet he is sketchily drawn. Like Detective Lester Freamon from the The Wire who makes dollhouse furniture, Salazar’s avocation is miniature wooden boats. He swears a lot and his shrink believes the reason behind his obsession with the case has more to do with him and not the case. No more insight is given – and one need not be provided, for the fact that he is committed to solving the case should be enough, but when every other lead character is serviced with a back story, a little more thoroughness is expected for the detective who sets the plot in motion.

Sunil’s boss, Brewster, is the devious scientist at the military institute where tests are carried out on humans to modify them into fitter soldiers. This may or may not be in connection with piles of corpses that are periodically found near a river where Fire and Water were arrested. The mystery is resolved about a 100 pages into the novel with 220 to go. This pays dividends by transferring the emphasis of the book to the human story: why has Eskia, Sunil’s old friend and colleague, come from South Africa to kill Sunil? What were the twins doing at the site if they are not responsible for the bodies? And to some degree, will Sunil end up with his colleague Sheila or with Asia the sex worker with whom he might be in love?

Time and again, it is the heft of the human story that lifts this novel out of the detritus of genre requirements. The piles of corpses are dull notes compared to the thrumming of Sunil’s childhood and his time in the South African intelligence. A scene where he accompanies covert operatives as they lead a black man to a place where they chop and watch his corpse burn as they drink lays bare the ugliness of Apartheid. The group’s leader, Eugene – nicknamed Optimum Evil – commands Vlakplaas a place where “suspected terrorists were captured, and turned. Those who couldn’t be turned were executed, their bodies disposed of somewhere on the beautiful grounds on the farm.”  Eugene flaunts to Sunil his knowledge of Dante’s Inferno and the Bhagavad Gita as he recruits him into his fold. So committed is he to maintaining Apartheid that he is dismissive of the Afrikaner decision makers in Pretoria and Bloemfontein, “we drove the blacks from it (the land) and we drove the British from it, and I will be damned if I let any Afrikaner destroy it”. The same land he admits he was taught to love by a Zulu man.

These 12 pages contain the most alert writing in the book. Eugene’s reprehensible views and god-awful actions are mined for complexity.  They evoke anger and unfold reluctant understanding of how racial segregation has endured. The reader believes in his convictions because he is consumed by it. Familiarity with South Africa’s recent history also helps; despite the flaws, in these few pages, Mr Abani provides a complex exploration of that history with real feeling for the subject matter and purpose and that alone makes this novel worth reading.