By Stuart M. Kaminsky

Mysterious Press



You Bet Your Life
Cover by Alex Janson

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Toby Peters is Stuart M. Kaminsky's Los Angeles detective in a series of historical novels set in the 1940s. The third novel in the series, You Bet Your Life, opens with him in Florida, trying to get some information before heading up to Chicago to look into the gambling debts of one of MGM's actors.

Following a Florida meeting with Al Capone, who offers to vouch for Peters during his investigation, Kaminsky describes Peters train ride north to Chicago in detail, including the obnoxious woman he first sits next to and then the small-time grifter who tries to steal his suitcase, before depositing Peters in Chicago and the semi-welcoming arms of Chicago police sergeant Kleinhans, assigned to help him with his investigation.

That investigation takes him around Chicago and out to Cicero, all the while dealing with 1940s Chicago's seedier underside. The world he finds is filled with cops, working stiffs, and mobsters working for the successors of Capone's mob, whether led by Frank Nitti or Capone's brother, Ralph, who are fighting a background war for control of Chicago. A friendly cab driver connects him to Merle Gordon, a waitress who may be more than she seems. Eventually, he also comes into contact with the actor he is meant to be protecting, Chico Marx, and his brothers, Groucho and Harpo.

Gino, one of Nitti's men claims that Chico owes him $120,000. Marx claims that he is being set up and isn't responsible for the debt. Although his brothers believe him, they also know that he is quite capable of gambling away the money Gino claims is owed. Kaminsky's portrayal of the three brothers is heavily based on their stage and screen personas, particularly Groucho. His Chico and Harpo, however, have a little more grounding in the world outside of their films, with Harpo quietly offering advice and Chico playing up his pseudo-Italian character when he feels like it, but also exhibiting concerns and understanding of the very real stakes if he can't clear his name or the claimed debt.

Kaminsky does make a few errors. Ian Fleming wasn't in the United States until several months after the novel is set and one character talks about appearing in the play Arsenic and Old Lace in high school, when the play only opened on Broadway a month before Peters found himself in Chicago. While minor points, they do have a tendency to drop the reader out of the novel, even if temporarily.

Although much of the novel appears to be unconnected as Peters chases down one lead after another and tries to make connections between his visits to the Marx Brothers and to Merle Gordon's, Peters does provide the clues the reader needs to figure out what is going on and whether Chico has actually been framed or owes the money. As the body count around Peters grows and Kleinhans begins to lose some of his affable personality upon seeing the violence that seems to follow Peters around, the sense that Peters may find himself in over his head does grow, especially when it becomes clear that MGM is only willing to support his investigation if he is able to produce results.

While entertaining, You Bet Your Life is not particularly well-paced or tightly plotted. Peters and the reader will eventually get to the resolution and see some of the post-Capone war play out and the Marx Brothers go off to work on The Big Store. Although the Marx Brothers appear throughout a good portion of the book, their role is barely more than a maguffin, the catalyst to get Peters to Chicago to investigate the remnants of the Capone mob.

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