My review of Shaun Assael’s The Murder of Sonny Liston:
With an arresting title that slaps a felony tag on an infamous death that was never officially declared a murder, Shaun Assael’s grim and vivid portrait of the violent and predatory life of former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston builds a strong, circumstantial case that he was a man plenty of people wanted to see dead.
If you’re expecting Assael, a former investigative reporter for ESPN, to definitively prove his case and single out Liston’s killer, you’ll be disappointed and miss the point of his excellent book. Ignore the title and enjoy a low-rider ride through the 60s and early 70s as the author recounts Liston’s rise and fall, his ties to mobsters, his one-punch dive to give up his title to Muhammad Ali, his star-crossed attempts at a late career comeback and his descent into a disturbingly natural thug life before rappers made that term so cliché and commonplace.
Along the way, you’ll take a panoramic pass through Las Vegas at the time when mob dominance was on the way out and the secretive and creepy Howard Hughes was ushering in the corporate takeover that would transform the desert city and surpass Bugsy Siegel’s dream. But freeze-dried glitz for the suckers isn’t the only thing that flashes through the windshield. Assael spins through Vegas’ seedier and crime-ridden black section, a ghetto without the projects of big cities, and glides through the casino machines lubricated by bribe-and-hush money, sex, booze and drugs that keep the high rollers happy and the politicians and lawdogs greased to look the other way.
He also masterfully portrays the town’s internal politics, it’s deep black-and-white divide, the civil war between cops and sheriff’s deputies and the preliminary rounds of the federal War on Drugs declared by Richard Nixon, part of Tricky Dick’s cynical ploy to make law-and-order a repackaged and rebranded version of the age-old ploy of keeping the black man down to capitalize on the backlash against the upheaval of the Sixties.
Liston had a foot in both the downtrodden and uptown worlds of Vegas. He was feared and revered wherever he went, living on the tattered hall pass of fading celebrity and a fearsome reputation for violence. He lived in an upscale subdivision and did his drinking, drug-dealing and whore hopping on the shady side of town. He kept a pistol in an ankle holster and wasn’t afraid to use his fists outside the ring, but could show an unexpectedly tender side to children.
An outlaw’s time in this world is never long and Sonny’s freewheeling life could no longer be tolerated. Like others before him, he outlived his time and his ticket needed to be punched. By the time you finish reading this book, you’ll believe that Liston’s death from a heroin overdose was anything but accidental.
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