If paperback fiction authors are cooks, Las Vegas is the seasoning they want within easy reach. Setting too bland? Nothing a little Sin City can’t fix. Characters too flat? Turn them into mobsters or showgirls. It’s a secret plenty of authors have known since the dawn of pulp. Proof: Seventeen banker’s boxes at the Clark County Museum containing more than 1,000 mass-market paperback novels published within the last 60-plus years. They range from whodunits to sci-fi, but they all share that same spice: They all take place in Las Vegas.
A longtime book collector, Clark County Museum Administrator Mark Hall-Patton has been “picking up” paperback novels set in Las Vegas for around a decade. “About seven years ago, I got serious about it,” he says. As a historian, he realized that the books could provide a unique basis for research into portrayals of Las Vegas. “I chose mass- market fiction,” he says, his idea being that a comprehensive gathering of “throw-away” books would offer insight into the role Las Vegas has played in popular culture over the last half-century. With titles like Dealing Out Death and Sin Binge, they were written to entertain for a few hours and then to be tossed aside. “Neon Nightmare!” screams one back cover. “She gambled with lust in a shower of shame!” declares another. Though produced for nothing more than titillation, as a group they paint an evolving portrait of Las Vegas since the end of World War II.
“Vegas shows up sometimes in places where you wouldn’t expect it,” Hall-Patton says. There’s a novel about nuns, for example, and a sci-fi story about a gambling planet modeled on the Strip. While he does use keyword “Vegas” to scour sites like Harlequin and AbeBooks, Hall-Patton also keeps an eye out when prowling used bookstores and checks out suggestions from people — always paying from his own pocket, though he’s donated the collection to the museum. As long as the story is set in Vegas, it’s a mass-market title, and he can get a physical copy, Hall-Patton wants it. Mystery, fantasy, romance, police procedurals, television and movie novelizations, men’s action, chick lit — Las Vegas has lent its neon brilliance to all of them as well as to a more vague but instantly recognizable genre Hall-Patton calls “sleaze.”
In the early novels — those written in the two decades after World War II — the Mob is a major focus. “Las Vegas doesn’t have any redeeming features,” Hall-Patton says. It’s unrelenting Sin City, described in almost mythological terms and painted in broad strokes. “Now that there are 2 million people living here,” he says, “it’s had an effect.” In contemporary Vegas novels, details are more accurate and characters more realistic. But even though fewer novels these days feature gambling and mobsters, stereotypical Las Vegas still shines through with tremendous resilience. “As much as we might like to think that Las Vegas is like every other town — it isn’t,” Hall-Patton says. “You won’t see stories set in a drugstore in Henderson.”
The novels also reveal the evolution of stock characters. In early novels, women — usually showgirls — are either victims or seductresses defined by their interactions with men. These days, men might figure in, but the women are less often pawns or vixens. “They’re far more likely to be werewolves or vampires,” Hall-Patton says. After all, you can make a 4,000-year-old vampire own a casino. Nobody will ever notice that he never goes outside in the daytime. “I thought this would be an interesting and valuable collection for understanding Las Vegas,” Hall-Patton says. They might be trashy, but thanks to Hall-Patton’s perseverance, generosity and foresight, they are not trash.