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Visit the bizarre side of Vegas with 'Getting off on Frank Sinatra'
Visit the bizarre side of Vegas with 'Getting off on Frank Sinatra'
23 January 2017
By Clare Fitzgerald
Sure, it's a murder mystery. But it's not all doom and gloom.
Here at Casino City, our coverage of Las Vegas tends to focus on its gaming industry, since that's sort of our wheelhouse. And anything not strictly gaming-related is still usually geared toward tourists.
But there's a lot more to Las Vegas than its casinos, and it's these aspects of the city that we see explored in Megan Edwards' debut novel Getting off on Frank Sinatra, a cozy-ish mystery about an aspiring journalist who finds the corpse of a prominent Las Vegas philanthropist and gets caught up in — and, to be fair, inserts herself into — the subsequent investigation.
"Las Vegas is full of so many bizarre things," Edwards tells Casino City. "It's just different from other cities."
Copper Black is 24 years old, recently transplanted from the East Coast, working as a calendar editor at a local newspaper, and living in a one-bedroom apartment over her brother's garage when a whole bunch of things happen at once. First, her boyfriend breaks up with her when he finds out that he got his supposed-to-be-soon-to-be-ex-wife pregnant. Second, she gets a house-sitting gig at a garish Las Vegas landmark built in the seventies by a mobster for his girlfriend. Third, in a bid to get her own column, she starts working on an article about a prestigious local private arts high school founded by a beloved, wealthy socialite named Marilyn Weaver. Copper and Marilyn get along very well, right up until Marilyn is murdered and Copper discovers the body.
While this is obviously a bit traumatic for Copper, it's also exactly the sort of thing to make a young journalist's inner fantasies of being Nellie Page go into overdrive. There are a few complications, though. One is that there is already someone whose actual job it is to solve the murder: a very serious, suspicious fellow called Detective Booth, whom Copper manages to get on the wrong side of immediately and for easily avoidable reasons. Another is that Copper still has her own job. Plus, her other ex-boyfriend is visiting, and Marilyn's maybe-charming, maybe-creepy nephew is making moves on her. And Copper's brother, a priest, is right in the center of an unnecessarily nasty situation that crops up between the Alliance for the Homeless and an out-of-state Native American group when bones are discovered at the construction site for a new homeless shelter. In short, Copper suddenly finds herself very, very busy.
This multitude of plotlines serves to keep Copper running around all over Vegas in her distinctly unsexy secondhand minivan, meeting new people and learning new things—things like "how to feed a desert tortoise," "why black outdoor pools were popular in the seventies" and "how long would it take to dispose of a body via carnivorous plants" (answer: too long).
"It's not a particularly heavy crime story," Megan Edwards tells Casino City. "I wanted to keep it light and I wanted to have features about the Las Vegas that I've come to know and love, like the desert tortoises. I have a soft spot for them."
Copper's journey of amateur detective-ing around Las Vegas was inspired in part by the author's own adventures getting to know the city as a new arrival—a story that starts in 1993 in Pasadena, California, when she and her husband lost their home in a wildfire.
"My husband had just moved his entire business home, so he was totally cleaned out," Edwards says. "It pretty much took everything we had except our dog and our car. So I quickly came to the conclusion that maybe we should do something different. One option, of course, was just to rebuild with a new house, but I thought, 'You know, we don't have any stuff, so we have some opportunities that we wouldn't have otherwise.'"
The couple bought an RV and decided to travel around for six months before deciding what to do next. After six and a half years, they were still touring around North America when they rolled into Las Vegas, intending to stay for just a few weeks as Edwards did some research for a novel she was working on. The research never really ended; at least three books are in some stage of resulting from it; and Edwards is still in Las Vegas.
"I got a bus pass and rode all the buses to the end of the line, and saw all these different neighborhoods and talked to people and went and checked out all the high schools for my book, and it wasn't like anything I had imagined," Edwards said. "Part of it is just that it's a new city, so there's a lot of innovation and entrepreneurialism and those kinds of things. And then there are unexpected things — I didn't know that it was a Mormon city. It has the biggest population of Mormons outside of Salt Lake City, so it's very conservative in its residential areas. And who thinks of Las Vegas as being conservative? But it is."
Getting off on Frank Sinatra is not the novel that Edwards was working on when she arrived in Las Vegas. "When I was first here at the end of 1999, the following year I taught at a private school here in Las Vegas," she says, when asked about the origin of the book. "So that gave me that idea, and I liked the idea of someone new to Las Vegas discovering it, so that's why I made the main character somebody who hasn't lived here very long and is finding things out about it as she does her work."
The character of Copper Black is drawn partly from Edwards' own experiences and partly from other people she's known. "I liked the idea of working with a character who's not a teenager —she's in her mid-twenties — and I liked the idea of her being an adult, but still very much connected to her family and trying to figure out who she is and decide what career path she wants to pursue," Edwards explains. "I thought those kinds of things made her an interesting character, because a lot of times (in fiction) people are either farther along in their career path and already well-established in some field, or they're younger and not really adults yet."
As a member of Copper's exact demographic group (i.e., financially precarious twentysomething white female publishing minions with pretensions toward journalism), I found Copper to be a believable and relatable lead, with life circumstances I've seen before among what sociologists call "emerging adults." While Copper doesn't live with her parents, she does live with her brother. House-sitting is the most wonderful gig imaginable, because it allows you to live in a house for a little while like a real person. The recency of Copper's arrival to a new city means she has not built up a proper base of friends, leaving her to rely on ex-boyfriends for tasks such as scoping out the party house for intruders — a dynamic that's great for drama but bad for emotional equilibrium.
"I liked that state of life," Edwards says. "There are so many questions about relationships — with everybody, your significant others and your family and your work colleagues."
While the book has a large and colorful cast of secondary characters — students, socialites, newsroom staff, a cowgirl, Copper's dad's terrible new boyfriend — it is probably the party house that is the most colorful character of them all. Following in the menacingly seductive girl-meets-house tradition of Gothic literary estates like Manderley, Hill House and Thornfield Hall, the party house, with its history of mobsters and murder and the rumor that a head is still hidden it somewhere, has a twist: mainly, that it was built in Las Vegas in the '70s and, as a result, is not so much imposing as eye-wateringly tacky.
"There are a whole bunch of these (in Las Vegas). There's a totally underground house here that somebody built back when they were worried about a nuclear bomb," Edwards says. "I didn't use that one, but maybe in the future. But there really are these old party houses that were built by mobsters for their girlfriends or wives, and they're just strange. The architecture is strange, and some of them are getting torn down now, which I think is kind of a shame."
I, for one, love a good girl-meets-house story, and I also love me some bad architecture. In fact, there are quite a number of elements in Getting off on Frank Sinatra that are well aimed at pandering to me personally, from the female sleuth to the newsroom humor. It's a fast, fun, quirky read, full of action-packed genre staples like arson and car chases flavored with the irreverent humor of Copper's inner monologue. I finished it in a day.
Getting off on Frank Sinatra will be available for general purchase on 14 March 2017. There is also a prequel in the works, Full Service Blonde, in which Copper investigate the death of a prostitute in one of Nevada's legal brothers, which will be published in November. Edwards says she is also working on a sequel, to be called Graveyard Bowling.