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July 25 2020
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The Vapors casino, in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice by David Hill

If you’re not from Arkansas, the town of Hot Springs probably conjures little in the way of vivid imagery. If you are, as both sides of my family can claim, just the mention of the name evokes a kind of bygone backwoods Las Vegas, a sweaty, pulsing line of casinos both posh and down-market, flanked by the town’s famous bathhouses, bookie joints, and brothels, that rare American spot where illiterate locals could double down alongside vacationing midcentury gangsters such as Al Capone and Frank Costello.

The Brooklyn writer David Hill’s history of all this, The Vapors, is a capable if ultimately disappointing biography of the town in its heyday, from roughly the mid-20s to the mid-60s. It’s a story that’s probably overdue to be shared with a national audience, and if Hill’s book isn’t exactly the rip-roaring gangster yarn you might be expecting, it’s still a valuable, professionally produced contribution to American criminal history and lore.

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