I had a good feeling about this novel from the first time I saw the cover an alluring female protagonist holding a smoking gun posed on an image of the queen of hearts. The dedication “To all the squares, players, shot callers, and eight ballers who ever made it off of Flower Street” makes it clear that this is not going to be a piece for anyone with a weak heart.
The main character is Martha Chainey, a money courier for a Las Vegas casino owner. There”s not much that”s special about her, unless you consider a tall, beautiful, street-smart ex-stripper who is running for her life “special.” Clearly, her character is based on Cleopatra Jones and other blaxpoitation females.
Chainey was on a routine delivery when she was robbed of her $7 million delivery and nearly killed. Accused of stealing the money herself, she must find the money within 72 hours or else face one pissed-off casino owner. That owner is one Frankie Degault. Along with his much calmer sister, Victoria, Degault runs the Riverhead Casino, among his other questionable activities.
Along the way Martha encounters a series of friends who may be foes and vice versa. Vern Sixkiller and Leopold are two Native American investigators trying to crack some murder cases for their own personal interest. Rena Solomon, a reporter for a questionable Vegas publication, provides some valuable information to help Martha try and find the thieves. Baker is a white South African hit man sent to finish Chainey off if she can”t recover the money. All of these characters provide for a wild ride as Chainey bounces everywhere from gay clubs to casinos in an effort to track down the criminals.
On the surface, it may sound like a bad Jenny Jones episode, but take a closer look. This novel about a black, female, ex-stripper money courier for the mob, who may be confused about her sexuality, works surprisingly well. Joining Chainey would be the majority of the women in Phillips” Vegas, since so many seem to be ex-strippers, ex-prostitutes or ex-junkies.
Phillips, a man who has written a series of hit books about private eye Ivan Monk while remaining a community activist, has a lot to say about humans and the “new” Las Vegas. His contrasts between men and women in the book are striking. All the men in the book think with their penises. The most successful at their respective jobs tend to be the more composed females, beginning with tough-woman Chainey. In addition, Phillips makes reference to hostilities between Native Americans and Caucasian casino owners in Vegas.
In the end, “High Hand” states its case: That Vegas hasn”t changed much since the old days of Bugsy Siegel and the other notorious mobsters that erected the now-famous desert oasis. The new wave of casino men may be Ivy Leaguers and have MBAs, but their dealings are as shady as always, with mob ties, politics and vengeance still carrying a great deal of weight in Sin City. The climax of the work, a high-stakes poker game that lends its name to the book”s title, further shows that in Vegas, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Incidentally, I decided to look on Amazon.com for some insight into this book. Fortunately, one soul had some helpful information on the book (mostly copied from the book jacket) and gave it 4 out of 5 stars, calling it exciting. That avid reader? None other than the author himself, Gary Phillips.