THE PALACE By Paul Erdman Doubleday. 313 pp. $18.95
It's not unfair to expect more from Paul Erdman than he delivers in "The Palace," a ho-hum novel that brings together the worlds of casino gambling and investment banking. After all, Erdman is the former international banker who, since he turned to fiction after a run-in with the authorities in Switzerland, has written five bestselling novels concerned with high finance and low dealings. But in his sixth effort, Erdman seems to have run out of steam.
Erdman's hero is a Philadelphia pawn- and coin-shop owner named Danny Lehman who takes his first trip to Europe in 1964 and notices that there is money to be made by buying and selling currencies and silver. He returns to the United States and undercuts the big boys, Engelhard Industries and Deak-Perera, and then happens into the business of converting coins being skimmed from Las Vegas slot machines into more portable currency.
That leads to the eventual ownership of the casino whose illegal skim Lehman has been stashing for the bad guys in a blind account in the Cayman Islands. Naturally, there are a couple of hard cases who aren't thrilled when Danny Lehman takes over the casino, the Palace, and halts the skimming.
But Lehman survives a murder plot and prospers until New Jersey authorities investigate his application for an Atlantic City casino license. Then the illicit source of a loan that permitted him to buy the Vegas property becomes known. To save the Palace and his bank account, Lehman sells out to a slick New York investment banker who is everything Lehman is not: well-educated and worldly. Lehman takes his $100 million buyout and moves to London with a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who befriended him during his early years in Vegas. In semiretirement, Lehman becomes richer by investing with a European syndicate that uses insider tips to buy stock in American companies about to be taken over.
Author Erdman punches all the right buttons: money laundering, Wall Street interest in high-flying casino stocks, insider trading, and the glitzy, unreal world of casino high rollers. And his attention to detail is instructive to those who haven't watched fortunes rise and fall on the turn of a card at baccarat or the drop of the ivory ball at the roulette wheel. (Although in the detail department, Erdman should know that it's against the law to serve alcohol at a London gaming table.)
But Erdman's marriage of Wall Street chicanery and casino skulduggery doesn't make for a riveting read because none of his characters involve the reader. We don't much care whether Danny Lehman gets killed after a night at the Casino de Liban outside Beirut, and it's difficult to conjure any strong feelings toward the polished investment banker who comes to Lehman's rescue for his own money-grubbing reasons. As for the hooker-with- a-heart-of-gold, the less said the better.
Yes, Erdman's subtle message that there isn't a great deal of difference between a casino, with its white-shoed bosses, and Wall Street and its dark-suited managers is clear. But who today hasn't thought of the stock markets as casinos?
This is a novel in search of an editor who could tell the author that he probably has all the ingredients for an entertaining book, but he just hasn't combined them very effectively. Casinos and their denizens, especially high rollers, are fascinating. Investment bankers on the make are interesting. Any enterprise involving greed, as both Wall Street and casinos do, is potentially fertile turf for both fiction and nonfiction writers.
But for Erdman fans this time around, "The Palace" is about as entertaining as a bear market.
The reviewer is a senior editor at Washingtonian magazine.