It started at exactly eleven minutes past three A.M. on Sunday when Bello made his first appearance in the pit, picked up a pair of dice, and asked that the house limit on bets be taken off. At first only the casino itself was involved, then the charged atmosphere, the fever and melancholy spread like a plague to people staying under its roof. The ending came at exactly five twenty-three on Wednesday morning with the first cold, gray slabs of daylight.
Steve Fisher is another author whom I’d never heard of before despite his swath of material. He’s written, from what I can tell, hundreds of novels, almost a thousand short stories, and a hundred-twenty movie scripts/screenplays, including those for Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, and the Bogart films Dead Reckoning and Tokyo Joe, along with the final Thin Man film, and the screenplay for his own bestseller I Wake Up Screaming. The afterword by one of the author’s son fills in a lot of interesting details. Living in Las Vegas, Fisher was enamored with the glitz and gambling of the city, and used a lot of research and insider’s intel to craft this novel, No House Limit.
Having recently watched the Ocean’s Eleven movies and in the middle of playing Fallout: New Vegas, I thought it’d be rather topical to read this novel.
The book has three main plot threads, which I’ll go over individually. First and foremost is that of Joe Martin, owner of Rainbow’s End. Joe became an expert craps player as a private in Europe, and went to Vegas with his winnings to start a casino. After refusing to buy protection from The Syndicate, they attempted to crash his casino by out-gambling him; they lost, and Rainbow’s End became the luxurious dream it is now. Now, The Syndicate is trying again: they’re backing the world’s greatest gambler, Bello, to win all of Joe’s money away. And right away, he’s off to an impressive start.
While Joe spends most of his time down at the tables, keeping an eye on Bello (and hoping he’ll lose), he’s also dealing with a love interest: schoolteacher Sunny Guido. Joe is Humprey Bogart in everything but name; just look at the dialogue. He’s a rough-and-tumble man of action who also happens to be scared witless, self-isolated by his own rough attitude. Joe needs Sunny—not just from attraction, but to stay as a psychological safety net and caretaker in his penthouse hideaway, but he never wants to say what he means. You know how in those old films, Bogart would get into a verbal sparring match with the love interest, she’d send a zinger back at him, he’d slap her, she’d slap back, and within a few moments they’d be making out? Yeah, he’s that kind of character, with deep-seated issues that won’t let his romantic side play out. A complex character for sure, if dated. Check their Bogartastic dialogue:
Joe, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded!”
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you!”
“Nobody hurts me.
The second thread is that of Mal Davis, lounge singer/piano player at Rainbow’s End. He’s more or less a washout, and is waiting on his agent to give him a call on his record contract attempts, stuck playing piano for Joe and hoping someone will notice his talents. Mal spends a lot of time at the bars and lounges, meeting a variety of interesting characters taken from all walks of Vegas life: gamblers and showgirls, weirdos, freaks, drunks, starry-eyed dreamers and harsh-toned cynics. Soon, eye-catcher Dee, Bello’s girl, entangles him. Dee enjoyed living the high life with Bello as her sugar daddy, but now wants to get out. Their relationship builds over a series of secret rendezvous; eventually they’re told by their respective sides to lay off. And then they find out that they can’t.
The third storyline is that of Sprig, Joe’s head of security, who’s implied to be ex-FBI or law enforcement. Either way, he’s kind of a ninja, in that he’s best at everything: he rough-houses traitorous employees, sees through disguises and plots, unearths counterfeit chips, and even beats the crap out of a Chicago hitman hired to kill… Sprig himself. Sprig’s sections are the shortest; they illuminate the greater scheme without getting in the way of the two parallel romantic entanglements.
I have to say, Fisher did a fantastic job building tension throughout the novel: there’s a strong sense of Joe’s fatigue in the claustrophobic casino interior as Bello’s gamble drags on. I give him more credit because the plot is ludicrously thin. Bello’s big plan is “have the house take its limit off of maximum bet amounts, then gamble like nobody’s business,” which is not the plan I’d have if I wanted to break the bank. On the other hand, it’s implied he’s not only lucky but so mathematically astute that his betting style and choices aren’t repeatable by mortal men. Bello is an analogue for Nick the Greek, famed gambler who won and lost an estimated $500 million in his lifetime, which can help explain Bello’s fame, luck, and numbers-crunching skills. But the idea of trying to win $10 million just by making larger bets doesn’t fly.
Fisher decided to start each chapter with a paragraph snippet of information related to Vegas. It’s an interesting idea that’s turned up in numerous other mystery/action novels. A lot of the information is helpful—how many readers really know how craps works, or how casinos handle bets, or otherwise know the history or culture or feel of Las Vegas in the late ’50s? The best ones in the bunch are those that immediately tie back in to the tense narrative. On the other hand, other sections have nothing to do with anything, and felt tacked-on, without a real point or purpose. I might be alone, but later in the novel I’d rather have jumped right back into the action than learn how dicing supplanted faro, or that the only desegregated Vegas casino folded.
But his writing style—man, it’s slick. Fisher’s experience with Bogart screenplays and crime thrillers is a strong advantage: it shows, in the terse dialogue, the pounding tension, and the web of sub-plots which build up to a crescendo. Fisher’s handling is deft, making it a sublime treat for the ’50s noir fan. The only downside is that its horrible Fifties feel is worse than most other books from the era; it’s one of the more misogynistic Hard Case Crimes I’ve read, and it comes from an era when “Negros” weren’t allowed on the Strip. Joe’s relationship starts off very blunt and rocky, and while it develops nicely, it’s one of those relationships that can only happen in a ’50s novel.
I read No House Limit as a period piece in more ways than one. It’s a vision of Vegas that looks nothing like our contemporary one—in fact, hasn’t been seen since the Rat Pack was swingin’ through the Strip—and the misogynistic relationship is dated. But Fisher’s prose is steady, unblinking as it dives through intrigue and tension at an ever-increasing pace. Despite its flaws, of which there are several, No House Limit was worth the time, thrilling and convincingly written, and now I’m on the lookout for more Steve Fisher novels.