For David Kranes, who described himself as painfully shy as a kid, learning a few magic tricks was a gateway to studying theater and, eventually, transforming himself into an English professor and writer.
Oh, yes, and his close literary attention to the dramaturgy of space led the retired University of Utah professor into a side hustle as a casino consultant.
Kranes’ eighth novel, the noir Las Vegas mystery “Abracadabra,” draws upon the writer’s longtime themes. “David Kranes writes about magicians, gamblers, hit men, painters, casino workers,” is how the writer’s website describes his work.
The plot includes magic shows, theatrical cons, Shakespearean twins and mysterious disappearances and appearances, all set against the anything-goes backdrop of Las Vegas casinos. “Abracadabra” is centered on a private investigator with the wonderful name of Elko Wells, a former football player who hears voices and perceives patterns due to the concussions he received in his playing days. He’s aided in his detective work by the Bloody Marys, a network of observant, helpful cocktail waitresses.
The witty novel is set in motion when the troubled wife of Mark Goodson seeks Wells’ help after her Eagle Scout husband disappears during a performance of Lance Burton’s magic show. In this Las Vegas mystery, nothing is quite what it appears, which makes Elko’s side hustle running a celebrity lookalike agency, featuring a particularly genial double of Shaquille O’Neal, literarily apt.
Kranes will launch his novel at The King’s English Bookshop at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15. Bookstore owner Betsy Burton calls the mystery “a wonderful romp of a read.” Except, she adds, it also “nails the dark underside of Vegas along with its glitz.” A starred Publisher’s Weekly review lauds the mystery for its “sprightly yet elegant prose.”
Kranes says his lead characters, Elko Wells and disappearing husband Mark Goodson, serve as dual sides of his nature. After Goodson, who was adopted, secretly learns he has a long-lost identical twin, the character takes advantage of the opportunity to try on another identity. “He tries to rewrite himself” without any consequences, Kranes says.
Kranes has written more than 40 plays, collected in a selected plays anthology published in 2011, and published three collections of short stories. He’s noted for his longtime helming of Sundance’s theater lab, and recently launched a creative development workshop at Salt Lake Acting Company.
His father-son novel, “The National Tree, was adapted into a 2009 Hallmark movie. Another Nevada-set novel, “Crap Dealer,” the product of more than 20 years in the writing stage, is set to be published by Huntington Press next year.
Kranes says he has outlines for three more mysteries featuring Elko Wells. He’s not interested in following the classic formula for noir mysteries, which usually require more blood and more deaths, as in the writing he developed a real affection for his characters.
The facades of Las Vegas continue to factor into his work. “It just seems a place of the imagination,” Kranes says. He describes the casinos as “confusing connections of boxes and spaces” and continues to be intrigued at how their design tends to unhinge visitors from everyday concerns.
In the same way, perhaps, that performing magic tricks at children’s birthday parties unhinged a shy young man and transformed him into a scholar. And the name of a grammar school bully, Billy Spence, is reinvented as a character who is an actor and a gambling con man.
It’s another form of transformation that the formula of a mystery novel offered Kranes a chance to explore the drama of identity. The way things appear, of course, aren’t always how they are. That’s why at the reading, Kranes says, he’ll offer some magic, the literal kind, in the form of a card trick of two.
“Abracadabra” • David Kranes reads from his new noir Las Vegas mystery. <br>When • 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15. <br>Where • The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.<br>Tickets • Free. Places in the signing line are reserved for those who buy the novel from the bookstore. Information at 801-484-9100.