Book review: The Dice Spelled Murder

I thought this book was corny when I read it, but in a fun way. In retrospect, the title is hilarious. Dice can’t spell, so how they spell murder is beyond me. This is an almost Hinchcliffe/Holmesian Mad Libs: The X spelled (murder, death, fear, evil). I guess having “murder” in the title sold books, though.

This is another pulp crime/gambling book from the stacks of UNLV Special Collections. The tagline on the cover was irresistible: “The redhead was looking for some action…she got it.” The back cover was even more descriptive:

We work the convention hotels–dentists, plumbers, legionnaires–guys away from home with a buck in their pockets and looking for a little action.

The redhead is the shill. She has more curves than a snake, and when it comes to money she’s as cold as a stone. As for my dice, they’ve all had major operations. Between us, we take the big spenders for all they’re worth, and sometimes a little more.

…And that’s where the trouble usually begins.

How can you pass up a book like that? I started reading, and didn’t regret the decision to pick this one up. So how can you not click through and read the rest of the review?

Al Fray. The Dice Spelled Murder. New York: Dell, 1957. 191 pp. paperback, 25¢

The line between gambling and crime has always been a little murky. Particularly before the movement of state governments into gaming in the 1960s, most novels about gaming were crime stories. The Dice Spelled Murder is representative of this genre.

The novel begins in a Hollywood gin mill, where truck driver Danny Hogan gets an interesting proposition from a b-girl. If anything, this means that the book starts off right for me. You just don’t get enough quality fiction about b-girls these days. For those who are unfamiliar with the deminmonde of the 1950s, a b-girl was a woman employed by a bar–usually a dive–to sit at the bar and encourage customers to order drinks, mostly by firting with them. They usually worked on commission. Today, many nightclubs have girls who go around selling shots. To my thinking, those are the modern equivalents of b-girls. Like b-girls, they can be quite persuasive. I recall an instance a few years ago when I was out at a club and one of those shot girls was very aggressively hustling me. When I said, “I’m the designated driver,” she literally replied, “One or two won’t hurt you. What’s the matter?” Now that I’m in Vegas, I go out to hip nightclubs and ultralounges that seem to concentrate on “table service,” which means letting people sit down for the privilege of buying bottles of booze marked up about 1000% or so. What a racket.

Back to our story. Hogan was busted in high school for playing craps, and for some reason was forced into the armed forces to avoid a scandal. There, he learned to cheat at craps. Velma Reed, the aforementioned b-girl, actually went to high school with Hogan. After she, too, had to leave town after an unmentionable scandal, she ends up in Los Angeles, modeling and b-girling. But she has bigger dreams, and suggesting that she and Danny team up to form an unstoppable dice-hustling team. The target–conventions:

“There’s a fortune for us there, and enough conventions hit Southern California every year to keep us in suckers indefinitely. They aren’t really gamblers. Professional men, Danny, big butter-and-egg boys who, at home, wouldn’t think of stepping over the line but on a convention–well, you know how people behave on a convention. They drink some and hell around at night, and with a little persuasion, they’ll gamble. It’ll be like picking the money off trees.”

This sounds like something a fly on the wall at the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority might overhear. It’s amazing to see the basic game plan for Las Vegas’s tourism strategy circa 2004 spelled out in a 1950s pulp crime novel. It’s more proof that there’s really not much new, and we’re just playing variations on a theme.

Anyway, the pair start hustling optometrists, builders, and diary wholesalers, but of course there’s a complication, and plenty of intrigue, though not much suspense.

This book has one of the themes I’ve seen running through this genre: don’t trust women. They are not only manipulative, but also greedy and ambitious, ready to use any poor bastard who lets his guard down. Seriously, most of these crime books are shot through with barely-disguised misogyny.

Balancing this out is the fact that the femme fatale is named Velma, and, according to the book, she’s really hot. This leads me to a point that I get static on all of the time: Velma from Scooby Doo was actually a hottie. When I worked surveillance, Scooby Doo would be on TV right around the time I had a break, so I got to watch quite a few episodes. Now, because I was working grave shift with very little sleep, my memories are kind of hazy–some things that I think I remember, I might have dreamed. I think I remember that there was an episode where Velma wore bikini top and hula skirt and danced around. Maybe I dreamed it, but I remember thinking, “Hey, she’s got a pretty kicking body there.” People usually say, “Dave, you’re a moron, she’s just really annoying,” but I know what I saw. That, and I’ve always had a weakness for girls who wear glasses. Anyway, this book proves that girls named Velma can be really hot.

If you like the 1950s criminal underworld, this is a really fun book. There’s actually not too much murder in it, but Hogan gets beat up every few chapters. He’s kind of like a proto-Rockford who hustles dice instead of investigating and doesn’t live in a trailer on the beach. I guess that makes him pretty dissimilar to Rockford, except that he gets beat up a lot.

Really great stuff here on conventions, some intrigue involving “the syndicate,” and absolutely essential information about 1950s dice hustlers. There are also subplots involving underground pornography and extortion, and, as in many of these novels, tension between the capitalist work ethic and the shortcut to wealth offered by dice hustling. Unlike many of the other protagonists in these novels, Hogan has no love for gambling–in fact, it makes him nervous. He just does it as a means to a greater goal, in this case owning his own trucking company. This works itself out in some interesting ways.

If you like the genre, this one is highly recommended, if only for its descriptions of California conventions and dice hustling. How they made money selling these books for a quarter, I’ll never know. I thought I got some pretty small royalty checks, but I can imagine how this author felt. Let’s say he got 10%; if they sold 100,000 copies, he’d make a handy $2500. Maybe he actually made his money scamming conventioneers.

Bottom line: this was an enjoyable read, with some great historical detail and interesting, if not always likable, characters. Roll the dice on this one.

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