Have you ever been to a casino? They’re designed to be exciting, and to get the adrenaline going. And every detail is very carefully planned so that you’ll spend the maximum amount of time there, and wager the maximum amount of money.
Because casinos are exciting, suspenseful places where a lot of money changes hands, it’s not surprising that they’re also really effective settings in crime novels. All sorts of things can happen in a casino, and they run the gamut from seedy, dangerous places to some of the most luxurious places in the world. So, there are lots of possibilities for an author.
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, for instance, we are introduced to London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s just won a lottery, so she decides to take a trip to Le Pinet, where many of her clients go. She doesn’t have much luck at the casino, but she does meet some of the characters who figure later in the story. One of them is Lady Cicely Horbury. She’s got a gambling addiction, and has the bad judgement to think that her next roll will wipe out her debts. She has a run of bad luck, though, and is desperate for money. So, she borrows money from Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. When she can’t pay the money back, Madame Giselle prepares to use the ‘collateral’ she has – private information that Lady Horbury does not want her husband to learn. Everything changes when Madame Giselle suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It looks at first like heart failure due to a wasp’s sting. But it’s soon clear that this was murder. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight as Madame Giselle, as are both Jane Grey and Cicely Horbury, and all three get caught up in the investigation.
In the US, several Native American Nations generate revenue by operating casinos on their land. One of them, a casino in the Ute Nation, figures in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In it, the casino is robbed by a group of far-right militia members who want to use the loot they stole to buy arms and equipment. If you know about casinos, then you know it’s well-nigh impossible to steal from them without ‘inside help.’ Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai works part-time at the casino as a security guard, and the police suspect that he’s in league with the thieves. He claims he’s innocent, and his friend, Navajo Tribal Police detective Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito, believes him. She takes her concerns to Sergeant Jim Chee, and he starts asking questions. It turns out that this case is linked to the past, and to an old Ute legend.
In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch investigates the murder of mediocre filmmaker Tony Aliso, whose body is found in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. He was killed execution-style, and all signs point to this being a Mob ‘hit.’ As Bosch looks into that possibility, he follows the trail to a seedy Las Vegas casino – and to former FBI agent Eleanor Wish, who’s become a professional poker player. He and Wish develop a relationship that ends in marriage, and it’s interesting to see how their story arc impacts the novels that come after this one. And in this novel, there’s a really telling scene between them that takes place in a casino.
As you’ll know, Havana was, at one time, a mecca for those who liked casinos. And many of those watering holes were owned by, or at least controlled, by Mob members. That’s one of the plot points in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’, which takes place in the years just before the revolution that put Fidel Castro into power. In that novel, we are introduced to fledgling journalist Joaquín Porrata, who works for the Diario de la Marina. Most of what he writes is ‘lightweight’ news, such as interviews with film actors. But then, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, who was killed in a New York barbershop. Anastasia was known as ‘The Great Executioner of Murder, Inc.,’ and Porrata thinks he was killed because he ‘stuck his nose’ into Mob business in Havana casinos. If that’s correct, then there’s a major story here. But instead, Perrota is told to write a story about a hippopotamus that escaped from a Havana zoo and was later found killed. He does what he’s asked to do, but his interest in the Anastasia murder is renewed when he uncovers a link between it and the hippo’s death – and yes, there is one. Throughout this novel, we see the role that casinos played in Havana’s economy and society during the last years of the Batista regime.
Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State features a different sort of casino. In it, professional thief Gary Chance goes from South Australia to Brisbane when a robbery he was involved in goes wrong. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain poker games for wealthy people who don’t go to ‘regular’ casinos. Curry wants to rob one of his clients, Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, and he wants Chance’s help. It sounds like an opportunity for a big payout, so Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team, and agrees to join it. The robbery is planned, but it doesn’t turn out to be anything like what Chance had imagined…
And, of course, I don’t think I could bring up the topic of casinos in crime fiction without mentioning Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Fans of these novels can tell you that he’s as comfortable at the baccarat table as he is anywhere else. And there are several important and tense casino scenes in the series.
But that’s just the thing. Casinos lend themselves to adrenaline, tension and suspense. And a lot of money is at stake. So, they do make really effective contexts for crime novels, and scenes in them.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Easy Money.