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No forest, just trees
on April 1, 2013
The criminals of Las Vegas have always been one of my guilty pleasures. It somehow seems "American" that a flat patch of desert could be turned into one of the premier destinations in the world, and it could really only have been put together by criminals. I am always on the lookout for good accounts of the start and growth of Las Vegas, and even if they repeat previously written information, I usually still enjoy them.
=== The Good Stuff ===
* Dennis Griffin has a nice ability to tell a story from multiple sides. Any event in Vegas looks different depending on if you are a politician, law enforcement office, tourist, gambler, casino employee, casino owner, or mobster, and Griffin captures the viewpoints of most of them.
* While we normally consider improper behavior to be the trademark of Las Vegas mobsters, Griffin also takes us through the foibles and corruption of politicians, judges, law enforcement and even casino owners. For the most part, these profiles seem fairly honest, and not at all sensationalized or sugar-coated. The reporting and reference standard seems to be about the same as a large newspaper.
* Griffin writes is an easy-to-read style, again reminding me of a newspaper. He seems to do a credible job with facts, and includes information for a variety of official and unofficial sources.
=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===
* My biggest complaint is the book is all trees, and no forest. For example, there are numerous details of how the "skimming" operation worked, but all these details were of very low-level actions. The reader is given details of how the money was stuffed into a bag, what color the bag was, and even how the bag made it from Las Vegas to the mid-west. But there are few details of the impact on the casino, the loss of tax revenue to the state of Nevada and the loss of profits to investors, and no real mention of impact on the city of Las Vegas as a whole. There is no detail on the level of return the skim provided to organized crime. Did the casinos even pay their way with the mob, once all the expenses are added up.
* Similarly, much of the text of the book is much like a newspaper report- one that lists lots of names, dates, places and actions, but little analysis of what is really going on. As an example, we see the mob gain, and then lose control of many casinos, but no real explanation of how it happened. Did law enforcement finally make it too expensive and dangerous a place for mob-run business? Did modern, well-managed entertainment conglomerates simply put the smaller mom and pop casinos out of the game? Of did the mob get bored and disillusioned, and decide that there was easier money to be made elsewhere? The book steps over questions like these and concentrates on who planted how many car bombs.
=== Summary ===
I am a fan of the subject matter, so I was probably more forgiving about the book's flaws that I should have been. I did enjoy the book, but I found many of the limitations to be serious, and the book does have a tendency to get drawn up in so much detail as to lose the plot. Quite simply, it is hard to make the organized crime side of Vegas to be mundane and boring, but this book accomplishes it.