Part of my family is from Arkansas. I never knew Hot Springs to be such a den of vice!
This is about as entertaining as true crime can get, especially if you like mob tales as I do. There are three running threads in the story: Dane, Owney, and Hazel. Dane becomes the top man for gambling in the city almost by accident but does all he can to legalize it. His ideas are actually ingenious but he’s consistently working against Arkansas’ theocratic bureaucracy. Owney, the legendary New York City gangster exiled here to try and make things work for the mob. And Hazel, the woman who just can’t seem to get her life right and, as a probable impetus for the writer telling this story, is the author’s grandmother.
The first two work very well. Hill does a great job of detailing Dane’s rise and fall in the gambling world of Arkansas. He’s not a thug, just a bureaucrat trying to make a buck where bucks can be made. He partners with Owney and he uses Owney to talk about the famed killer’s semi-retirement, as well as the status of the mafia’s control on gambling and why Hot Springs was such a popular target for them.
Hazel was probably the impetus for writing the story but her arc is the least interesting. She kind of exists on the fringes of the action and, while I understand this story is important to the author, I could have done with less of it.
Still, David Hill is a good writer and I was impressed at how easily he wove these three tales into a tapestry. It’s a fun true crime read, worth your time if you’re interested in the subject. Think of it as a southern version of Nicholas Pileggi’s Casino.