Cool World 

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.

More by Jarret Keene

  • Death on Two Rails

    Salvadoran journalist rides the deadly migrant trail
    • Jan 16, 2014
  • Daft Punk and Beyond

    Some of our critics' favorite albums of the year, part one
    • Dec 26, 2013
  • Thighs Like Us

    Ron Terpening's Cloud Cover reveals a sexy supporting character
    • Dec 19, 2013
  • More »


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • My Heart Can’t Even Believe It

    An excerpt from Amy Silverman’s new book exploring the challenges and joys of raising a child with Down Syndrome
    • May 12, 2016
  • Checkpoint Trauma

    Tucson journalist Todd Miller's new book Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security examines the lines between extreme weather and border movement
    • Sep 21, 2017

The Range

The Weekly List: 24 Things To Do In Tucson This Week

Andie Needs a Home

More »

Latest in Book Feature

  • Blood on the Tracks

    An excerpt from Dark Signal, a new mystery by Tucson novelist Shannon Baker
    • Oct 19, 2017
  • Woman of Mystery

    J.A. Jance talks about her life as a writer, her favorite authors and the return of J.P. Beaumont in her newest novel.
    • Sep 28, 2017
  • More »

Most Commented On

  • Checkpoint Trauma

    Tucson journalist Todd Miller's new book Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security examines the lines between extreme weather and border movement
    • Sep 21, 2017
  • Mid-Century Madness

    Modernism Week showcases a dance studio, houses, art and even vintage trailers
    • Oct 5, 2017
  • More »

Facebook Activity

© 2017 Tucson Weekly | 7225 Mona Lisa Rd. Ste. 125, Tucson AZ 85741 | (520) 797-4384 | Powered by Foundation