Cozy mysteries have a familiar structure. A woman runs her own business with support of her family and friends. She has a habit of finding dead bodies early in the plot and then feeling compelled to find the murderer herself.
Casino Queen has few of those elements. Instead, the setting, a casino in the Californian High Desert, serves as the main focus. Caroline, the casino’s general manager, is the heroine as her backstory is told in flashbacks.
I’ve always been curious about the way casinos are run. This is a deep dive into that culture. If you like casinos and want backstage access, Casino Queen is the perfect book for you. Just don’t expect the usual cozy mystery structure. 3 stars.
Thanks to the author and Great Escapes Book Tours for a copy in exchange for my honest review.
Character Guest Post
Hi, I’m Caroline Popov, casino manager for the Night Hawk. I was more surprised than anyone when I was promoted to this position. The first woman casino manager in the valley. John, the tribal chairman likes to call me the Casino Queen but that doesn’t sit well with me. Whenever I think of a Queen, Mary Queen of Scots comes to mind and we know she was beheaded by her cousin.
It’s funny living up here in the High Desert between Joshua Tree National Park and the world’s largest Marine base. There isn’t much around here some scrub brush and twisty mountain roads bordered by rocks that look like Jenga pieces. The kind of place where you would film a car commercial. The sky is always crystal blue and it barely rains, but when it does it is quite spectacular. A few days after a rain storm the desert wildflowers bloom painting the hillsides in a rainbow of colors. There is something spiritual about the place.
I worked hard to deserve the job. I was such a scared lonely person when I came to work at the Palm Oasis. I needed money and John Tovar our Tribal Chairman promised me a future with the tribe. He guaranteed it would be a trial by fire. I know there were some skeptics who didn’t think a woman couldn’t be tough enough to run a casino. Especially that chauvinist Derrick. He’s from Ireland and speaks a nice brogue but I can tell you his words are all Blarney. You have to be tough, but there is room for a little heart in this business. John taught me that.
One thing they never tell you about when you are training is at end of the day your feet feel like lead weights are attached to them, and your hair and clothes smell like cigarettes. Not the glamorous image of casinos you see portrayed on the movie screen. I can’t remember the last time someone walked into the Night Hawk in an evening gown. But there was something about the business that drew me in.
There was a fun atmosphere in the casino, you worked with hundreds of people. Every night was a mini adventure. I was alone, but I never felt lonely. Because dealers are working with math, after an hour the numbers start to get jumbled in your head and you lose concentration. That’s why if you are dealing you get a twenty-minute break every hour. That meant I had plenty of time to read, most dealers always have a book on the go. But most breaks I shot the breeze back in the break room with my team members.
Working with dealers from all over the world opened me up. Rui came from China. June came from Wales, she won the Green Card Lottery. Binh escaped from Vietnam on a leaky boat. Nadia came over as a mail-order bride. So many countries, so many stories. I could spend all day telling you about them. I was completely fascinated by them, Sometimes they made me cry but I admired the way they all fought to be part of the American dream. Although I doubt living forty miles off the highway slinging cards or pouring drinks was part of that dream. But the money was good, the hours were flexible and the job came with health insurance.
Here at the Night Hawk, my team really works well under pressure. You try dealing to someone when you’ve just relieved them of $10,000. Sometimes customers can be less than diplomatic. I’ve been called a bitch on many occasions. But it comes with the territory. On the other side I’ve had a player throw me a $500 chip. You learned fast in this business to take the bad with the good.
Of course, there are a few bad apples around here. When people work in the money store, they begin to think the money is theirs. Look around there are cameras everywhere. Everything you do is being recorded. We trust our employees, but we believe in trust but verify. There are so many inventive ways to steal from a casino.
When you come visit the Night Hawk, I’ll show you some of the scams people have tried to pull on us. There is the famous wall of shame filled with photos of all the finest hustlers, petty thieves, hookers, drug pushers and gambling addicts the valley has to offer. Keeping one step ahead of them is a big part of my job.
You can tell I really love this place. I confess, the business is in my bones. I’ve seen people leave but they always come back. Come to work for me, you’ll find out why. But in the meantime, let the casino buy you some dinner.
About Casino Queen
Casino Queen (Night Hawk Casino Series)
1st in Series
Setting – California
Wild Rose Press (March 16, 2022)
Paperback : 260 pages
ISBN-10 : 1509240918
ISBN-13 : 978-1509240913
Digital ASIN : B09PJWMG9Z
Caroline Popov, alone, heartbroken, and deeply in debt ends up in glamorous Palm Springs, California where Native casinos have just opened, offering employment to thousands. She lands a job at the Palm Oasis Casino where she is mentored by the charismatic tribal chairman, John Tovar.
Embraced by casino culture, Caroline works her way up to casino manager of the Night Hawk, in the High Desert of Southern California. There, she is responsible for managing multicultural team members, satisfying the demands of often unique guests, and growing revenue while rooting out corruption.
In the process of rediscovering her inner strength, she learns, you have to gamble like your life depends on it. Because it often does.
About Cara Bertoia
Growing up in a strait-laced Southern family, I was always fascinated with casinos. In my twenties on a summer hiatus from teaching in North Carolina, I drove to California and became a dealer at Caesars in Lake Tahoe. Well, I can tell you that after teaching high school, handling an unruly gambler was a piece of cake. My mother highly disapproved of my working in a casino, “a place so bad it has ‘sin’ in the middle.”
Eventually, I succumbed to pressure from the family and returned east to take a high-tech job in Boston. I also began working on my MFA in writing at Emerson. I wanted to write the first realistic novel about casino life from the perspective of an experienced table games dealer. I am always amazed that normal and sometimes quite intelligent players become absolutely clueless in the casino. They repeat superstitious nonsense and no amount of logic can change their position, maybe my novel will.
While in Boston I was offered the opportunity to join Princess Cruises as a croupier. Jumping at the chance, I spent the next five years circling the globe. Sometimes life exceeds your dreams. I was awed by the wonders of Venice, the fjords of Norway, and the Northern Lights in Leningrad.
I returned from ships with a very special souvenir, my Scottish husband Ray. We went to work at the Spa Casino in Palm Springs. We now live in Hollywood, Florida, where I write about my casino years while wistfully gazing out at the ocean.
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