Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Of Vegas “Whales” and Elko Wells: David Kranes’ Abracadabra

Book cover for David Kranes' AbracadabraIn my youth, as with many young men, I spent my fair share of sleepless days in Las Vegas with neon nights spent stumping up and down the Strip, slipping into gentlemen’s clubs, and eating hot wings in dark and dubious off-the-Strip hovels that passed as restaurants.I saw a lot of celebrities. Played blackjack at a table beside Derek Jeter at The Flamingo, saw Evander Holyfield at the Mirage, hesitated then thought, what the hell, then chickened out to get Evel Knievel’s autograph as he strolled through Caesar’s with his diamond-studded cane.

I was awestruck. And likely a little drunk. It was Vegas, after all.

David Kranes’ latest novel, Abracadabra, makes me second-guess if I really saw any of these guys out there in the desert oasis. Abracadabra is a card-trick mystery peopled with look-a-likes and mirror images, magicians and squeaky-clean types that fall off the rails into the deep mysteries of Vegas and have to crawl and claw their way back. Barely.

Vegas does that to folks. Even the best of us can forget to sleep and eat, even make a change of clothes, or, in the case of Kranes’ Las Vegas, a change of face. This mystery — spawned, I imagine, from the Vegas- to-Idaho short story, “The Fish Magician,” in Kranes’ collection, The Legend’s Daughter, (winner, in 2014, of the 15 Bytes Book Award in fiction) — gets rolling when Lena Goodson’s husband Mark disappears on stage during a magician’s show. What Lena doesn’t know is that her Eagle Scout-of-an-accountant husband has come into some money. A lot of money that doesn’t belong to him. Nor does it belong to the man who left it hanging on the back of a restroom stall door in a clever money vest during a heated tryst with a sexy paramour picked up on the casino floor at The Mirage. All Mark Goodson knows is it’s enough money to let himself disappear from his wife who doesn’t treat him very kindly. And so he does. Disappear.

Lena hires a private investigator, Elko Wells, with an outfit called Tracers, Inc., to help her find him. Wells is also the owner of a look-a-like agency called Mirror Image that hires out the likenesses of Shaquille O’Neal, Britney Spears, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump to make appearances at casinos, restaurants, and clubs to attract clientele.

Word of celebrity sightings gets around Vegas pretty fast, and tourists show up to gamble and dance and dine. Who wouldn’t like the pleasure of losing a few hundred hard-earned dollars sitting by Derek Jeter at a blackjack table at The Flamingo?

Bob Marshall, a high roller from Texas soon finds he’s lost a cool three million from his account at The Mirage. And, that’s right, it’s a look-a-like that’s taken over his identity. This look-a-like isn’t one of PI Wells’s crew. He’s a local actor by the name of Billy Spence who has a knack for makeup and mimicry and who’s draining a few different whales’ — including a Chinese woman’s — casino accounts over the course of just a few days. Marshall, the hotshot gambler also known as a “whale,” wings into town with blood raging in his veins . . . and blood in his intentions.

Then there’s the identity that Mark Goodson takes on after he disappears: Anthony Francis, our hero’s twin brother from whom he was separated at birth, both boys adopted by different parents. The brothers had finally met just a few months before and, through an odd encounter, Goodson has acquired his birth brother’s ID and credit cards and is using them liberally in his disappearance from his wife, Lena.

Following along?

Oh . . . and now, enter Dennis Folger, bilked earlier by Goodson’s twin, Anthony, to the tune of $75K in an elaborate scam. Folger, through his own odd encounter, has access to Anthony’s credit card activity and sees that it is being used all over Vegas, so Folger hops a plane to Vegas from Connecticut with blood also raging in his veins and blood in his intentions, ensuring that sparks are going to fly in this romp of a novel through Sin City.

Abracadabra is like an act of Cirque du Soleil — all the characters and their doubles and the actors and twins and the betrayed and betrayers and call ladies and johns and waitresses and pit bosses and clairvoyants and magicians and, by hell, even Dennis Rodman (the real Dennis Rodman) all spewed out in a big neon Bellagio fountain Mirage volcano splendor that could only happen in Vegas. And in the wake of Elko Wells.

And Kranes pulls it off beautifully, like a sleight-of-hand swindle right there in your fingers as you turn the final pages and find a soft rabbit in your lap. No mirrors. No smoke. Just smart storytelling.

It’s what we’ve come to expect from Kranes and his canon: tinder-hot writing, whether set in Idaho or Las Vegas or some mysterious place in between. Maybe northern Nevada. Anywhere, say, from Winnemucca to Wendover. Or in the deft imagination of Kranes called Abracadabra, announcing a new, unforgettable character in the smart mystery genre. A character that cries out to be heard from again: Elko Wells.

And in this intuition or fantasy, Elko imagines that, independently, Mark Goodson — having no idea whatsoever what to do with this new Himself or Not-Himself — has also chosen the middle of the night to be wandering the Bellagio floor. Elko imagines that Mark’s pouring hundreds-at-a-time of what must seem to be an inexhaustible body bag of money into a Megabucks machine. Elko imagines him downing whiskey sours–drunk out of his mind–talking to himself, talking to the machine, talking to anyone who will listen, feeling himself, for the first time in his life, on stage and attended to by a willing audience.


by David Kranes
University of Nevada Press
Paper, 256 pp

Categories: Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *