Chris Abani’s brilliant new murder mystery “The Secret History of Las Vegas” is chock full of the crime, bodies, and sordid characters mystery readers expect. But it’s also filled with the disturbing history of atomic energy, Apartheid, and psychological research, making this a gruesome literary masterwork.
The novel opens with soon-to-be-retired Detective Salazar stumbling on a set of conjoined twins swimming in a lake. The twins, named Water and Fire, are completely fascinating: Water is 6-feet tall and handsome, despite the fact that his brother “appeared to be little more than a head with two arms projecting out of Water’s chest.” While Water speaks only in Rain Manlike facts, Fire is an argumentative, sharp-tongued force. They claim to know nothing about the 5-gallon drum of blood next to their sedan — or about the bodies that were dumped at this same lake just two months prior.
And this is where Abani’s sleight of hand begins. Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African psychiatrist specializing in psychopaths, is called in to examine the twins, and it is Dr. Singh, not the twins, who proves to be the character with the complicated — and twisted — background. The narrative moves back and forth between present-day Las Vegas and Singh’s experience working at Vlakplaas, a notorious “reformation” camp in South Africa. It was here that Singh first realized the power of his research — and his unsightly ability to acquiesce to its cruel implementations.This isn’t a simple good vs. evil type of book; instead, “The Secret History of Las Vegas” is a psychological, literary thrill ride with a little noir sprinkled in to keep readers from going over the edge. Abani reveals the dark sides of all his characters while at the same time painting them in a sympathetic light, resulting in a beautifully written examination of the human condition — and the depths we will go to justify our actions.