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Vegas crime caper deals low-key payoffs

H. Lee Barnes' latest novel opens with a famous real-life disaster, which his protagonist narrowly evades. Sometimes, though, as Cold Deck makes clear, the flames that singe us stem from conflagrations of our design. And as Jude Helms learns, sometimes a losing streak combined with long-suppressed passions can stir bonfires that threaten to engulf everything we cherish, including our loved ones.

Casino dealer Jude survived the 1980 MGM Grand fire. He emerged from the smoke with second-degree burns and a pricey painting in his hands, one he might have sold for tens of thousands. Instead he dumped the artwork against a retaining wall and phoned his wife. Tired from caring for their infant son, she wasn't interested in hearing him gripe about his job.

You might assume the experience of escaping such a tragedy, one that cost 85 lives, would have caused Jude to seize his life by the horns and take control of his own existence. Instead, the opposite happened. He became, in his words, "resigned thereafter just to survive day to day." He dug his heels deeper into following the rules, playing it safe. It didn't get him anywhere.

Twenty years later, Jude is still in Las Vegas, dealing cards at the Monaco, punching the clock for paychecks he can barely call his own thanks to child-support payments to his now ex-wife. And then he has an especially bad week. His boss fires him for complimenting a customer's largesse—a word the customer mistook as "large ass." Immediately afterward, going home, a car sideswipes him on the highway. His Mustang is totaled, his life nearly snuffed. Days later, he manages to secure a new job dealing cards at a downtown casino, only to lose that gig after being arrested at work on assault charges. See, earlier, he'd confronted a neighbor whose Afghan repeatedly pooped on Jude's lawn. Using a plastic bag, he'd dropped the mutt's still-fresh turds on his neighbor's shoes. The scales of justice have tipped to Jude's disadvantage.

Recognizing his complete-loser status, Jude dubs himself Dog Shit Vigilante. The tag pretty much summarizes his invisible status in society. He's just another divorced, debt-plagued, underdog dad in the heat-lashed jungle of Sin City.

This is the setup and main character in Barnes' third novel. The Las Vegas writer's short stories have earned him prizes like the Arizona Authors Association Fiction Award. Here, Barnes, a college professor, flirts rather brazenly with the crime genre. He never commits to pulp-level expressions of sex and violence, though. Cold Deck plays it consistently cool, cat-and-mouse. There are no Mickey Spillane-like spasms of erotic brutality or brutal eroticism. The storytelling is quiet, confident, assured, literary. And arguably a tad slow. That's OK, because noir tales often work best when they simmer before boiling over. What comes across beautifully in many of these drawn-out scenes is Jude's playful, loving relationship with his better-than-all-right teenage kids, son Lucas and daughter Beth.

No crime yarn is complete without a femme fatale. Enter immensely attractive Audra, mother to a friend of Jude's daughter. Using sexual wiles, Audra lures unemployed, job-desperate Jude into a casino-cheating scheme. She introduces him to her friend Ben, a well-connected man who knows how to place a card-clumping shuffler behind a table in a casino in order to bleed it. Ben blackmails Jude with video surveillance of him cheating, pushing him deeper into the scam until he's over his head. People seem to get wise to Jude's dark turn. A man in a Honda stalks Beth. A Mafioso sniffs Jude out. A metro homicide officer catches him in a small yet critical lie. Indeed, Cold Deck is seamlessly plotted, the tension subtly ratcheted.

The writing is first-rate. I've yet to encounter a novelist who renders card-playing so convincingly, injecting science and mechanics with drama and pathos. The dialogue is appropriately hard-bitten and always fun, as when Jude picks up the phone to hire his own private dick, Darryl Biggs, to find answers and a way out of a predicament.

Jude: "I need a detective."

Biggs: "Most people who say that really need an attorney or a psychiatrist."

Jude: "I need all three, but one at a time."

There are a few creaky moments—like when, on panic's verge, Jude turns full-on foodie, prepping an elaborate last meal with his kids when he should be thinking of how to extricate himself. Also, the sudden Carrie-like ending, in which a villain suddenly springs, borders on pop-corny. Overall, minor complaints.

If you read one Southwest-set crime fiction this summer, you should hotly consider making it Cold Deck. Barnes deals a winning, if understated, hand.

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