I’m old enough to remember the 1960s, when Frank Sinatra was the epitome of cool, the guy every heterosexual male wanted to be. Along with his buddies Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and a few others, commonly known as the Rat Pack, he held court in Las Vegas like a king. Journeyman author Robert Randisi is writing a series of mysteries based on that time and place. I figured I’d try one of them, That Old Dead Magic. Might be fun, I thought.
Alas, it wasn’t that much fun.
Eddie Gianelli, known as Eddie G. to his friends, is a fixer for the Sands Hotel, where the Rat Pack used to perform up until recently (1965). He solves problems, caters to big gamblers’ tastes, and runs interference for celebrities. Now the Rat Pack’s slot at the Sands is being filled by Sammy Davis Jr. and comedian Jerry Lewis, temporarily teamed up. Eddie G. has never cared much for Jerry Lewis’ shtick, so he doesn’t plan to see the show. But when Sammy asks him for his help in “keeping Jerry from killing somebody,” he goes to see them.
He finds Jerry Lewis the least funny person he’s ever met. Also one of the least personable. But he has a problem. Somebody, he says, is blackmailing him. He won’t say what it’s about, but he wants Eddie to make the payoff delivery, because he can’t trust his own temper.
At the same time, Eddie gets a request from his private eye friend, Danny Bardini. Danny is investigating the disappearance of several young women in town. He needs a pretty girl to act as bait. Eddie suggests a waitress he knows, and she’s happy to get the work. Except that when she disappears completely after a few days, he feels responsible.
In his capacity as Vegas fixer, Eddie has made lots of interesting friends. Not only the Rat Pack and other big stars, but the mobsters who actually own the town. His relations with the police are more ambivalent, especially with a particular corrupt detective. So when it comes down to direct action against white slavers, Eddie turns to his gangster friends rather than the law. It’s a little strange to read a story where mobsters are the white knights.
The plot of That Old Dead Magic was competent enough, but I found the book surprisingly barren. When you’re writing about old Vegas, people expect you to describe the glamor, along with some revelation of the essential tawdriness. But here the descriptions are very bare bones – Vegas is bright and colorful by night, but by day it’s worn out and shabby. That’s it. No poetry. The story had no texture for this reader – I got no sense of atmosphere. And the characters were barely described – this guy was tall, this guy was fat. That’s about it. The only characters I could picture were the famous ones I’d seen on TV.
That Old Dead Magic felt like the skeleton of a story to me. I found it rather disappointing.