SATAN’S PLAYGROUND by Paul J. Vanderwood


Mobsters and Movie Stars at America’s Greatest Gaming Resort
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Hot-blooded history of a hedonistic Jazz Age resort where celebrity and mob culture mingled within gawking distance of the sensation-seeking masses.

Historian Vanderwood (Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint, 2004, etc.) seems to have enjoyed himself writing this account of Agua Caliente, a gambler’s and drinker’s paradise that rose in response to Prohibition America—and which was conveniently located just over the border in Tijuana, Mexico. With its high-class pretensions and low-brow diversions, Agua Caliente became a primary model for Las Vegas, a place where ordinarily “good” Americans could play hard at being bad. Its life was brief—less than ten years passed between its opening in mid 1928 and its unceremonious closing under orders of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1937—but what it lacked in duration, it made up for in color and influence. Vanderwood weaves into the resort’s history one of its most notorious moments, a botched robbery of an Agua Caliente money car as it made its way from Tijuana to a bank in San Diego. The incident left two dead and one of the mobsters wounded. Using as primary sources detective magazines, newspaper articles and trial transcripts, the author discourses on the rise of Eastern-style organized crime in Southern California. The tales of the hoodlums, molls, tax cheats, bribers, corrupt officials, would-be ambassadors, harlots, starlets and free-spending movie moguls whose lives intersected around this moment in history—little operas that Vanderwood relates, often in whimsical, hard-boiled prose—vividly conjure the pre-technicolor world of 1930s Hollywood melodramas. This is a book about much more than one place and time—race, fortune, law and (dis)order, border politics and economics all figure in the story of Agua Caliente.

Charmingly full of life, if not always coherent.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4702-6
Page count: 392pp
Publisher: Duke Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2010


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