Tuesday, October 9, 2018

High Stakes

The intersection of gambling and crime is fertile ground for fiction writers and serves as the theme for “High Stakes,” a 2003 anthology of eight short stories edited by Robert Randisi. Three of my favorite authors are among the contributors, so I decided to read and review the stories by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and Randisi himself.

“Let’s Get Lost” by Lawrence Block

Block’s contribution features his popular NYC private eye Matt Scudder, the hero of Block’s most acclaimed series of novels. This particular story originally appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.”


“Let’s Get Lost” is a throwback to a time when Nixon was president, and Scudder was a married NYPD detective who drank too much. One night watching a baseball game at home, Matt is summoned to the apartment of a prostitute with whom he has a personal relationship (Elaine becomes a significant character in later books of the series). As a favor to a client, she needs Matt to clean up a mess at a home poker game in a Manhattan brownstone.

The mess in question involves one of the poker players who winds up with a switchblade buried in his chest - dead by the time Matt arrives. The unusual circumstances of the murder cause Matt to advocate staging the crime scene along with the poker guys to create a more coherent story for the soon-to-be-responding officers. Is Matt being a crooked cop or does he have an ulterior motive?

Matt Scudder stories - long or short - are always fantastic, and this one is no exception. The Scudder P.I. novels contain many references to his days on the NYPD, but it’s interesting to actually read a story where Scudder is on the job as a cop and Elaine was just his favorite hooker.

“Breathe Deep” by Donald E Westlake

Westlake’s entry in the anthology first appeared in the July 1985 issue of Playboy where you also could have seen Grace Jones naked if you had $3.50 burning a hole in your pocket.

Chuck is a Las Vegas blackjack dealer standing at attention behind a $10 table with no players at 3:30 in the morning. Out of nowhere, he is approached by an old man that Chuck suspects is a derelict who wandered into the upscale casino on the Strip.

The conversation veers toward the urban legend (which may be true, for all I know) that casinos pump oxygen onto the gaming floor to keep the gamblers energized and awake. The story poses the question: what if someone wanted to use that knowledge as a weapon?

Westlake is always a good author, but at seven pages, this story was too short to really build up any momentum or tension. And without spoiling the ending, I’m not sure that the violent plan being executed would have actually worked in real life.

“Henry and the Idiots” by Robert J. Randisi

As the creator of several highly-regarded mystery series characters (Miles Jacoby, Nick Delvecchio, and Joe Meough, to name a few) Robert Randisi knows his way around a good crime story. “Henry and the Idiots” appears for the first time in the “High Stakes” anthology and has also found a second life as a $2 Kindle eBook.

While playing Caribbean stud poker on board a Mississippi riverboat casino, Henry Simon wins $257,000 in one hand and plans his escape from his miserable nag of a wife and her idiot brothers who all share the same trailer. Instead of going home with the money. Henry takes the cash and splits on a tour of casinos west of the Mississippi en route to Reno.

Meanwhile, back at the trailer, Henry’s wife dispatches the idiots to find Henry and figure out why he didn’t come home from the casino the night before. When she catches wind of Henry’s big gambling win, she’s ever more motivated to find her husband - and the money. Things come to a head in Reno once the idiots catch up with Henry and the security of the money falls into serious jeopardy.

The lighthearted story ends up with some fun twists and was a nice way to kill a half-hour.

The other five stories in “High Stakes” were written by Leslie Glass, Jeff Abbott, Judith Van Gleason, and Elaine Viets, and I’m sure they are all solid mystery tales. Based on the three stories I read, this fun anthology is an easy recommendation. Nothing revelatory, but some enjoyable short stories from a handful of the genre’s modern titans.