Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book review: "Dangerous Odds" by Marisa Lankester

As Marisa Lankester tells it, she never intended to make a career in the shady world of sports betting. She simply needed a job.

That's how the 23-year-old Lankester ended up in a nondescript house in Los Angeles in 1986 the only woman in a room full of men taking bets over the phone. Little did she know that this first step would eventually lead her to a life fleeing police and the FBI, and imprisonment in a hellish foreign jail.

"Dangerous Odds" is Lankester's story of her seven years within this sports gambling ring, and her rocky marriage to one of the ringleaders. She has some good stories to tell, and the book illuminates an underworld few of us are familiar with.

I wouldn't be surprised to see "Dangerous Odds" turned into a movie, especially with the blonde, gorgeous Lankester she also worked as a model  at the center of the action.

Lankester's stories are page-turners, but the tricky part is determining what's really true. She says at the start that events have been "recreated," and some identifying characteristics and details have been "fictionalized."  I give her credit for saying this upfront  some authors won't admit that they're fictionalizing even when it's obvious they are  but it leaves the reader wondering what to believe.

Some parts of the book do seem to happen too perfectly, as if snatched from a crime novel. Still, there is enough external evidence news reports and public records to confirm the basic outlines of Lankester's story.

Lankester seems a bright woman too bright, it would seem, to get involved with a gambling ring headed by notorious boss Ron Sacco  so I was struck by some very dumb decisions by her. The dumbest of these is her decision to throw herself at the office boss, Tony, basically because of his looks.

"I liked his perfect teeth, his strong jawline and his thick brown hair," Lankester writes. "I liked the curve of his neck, the shape of his nose, even the shape of his hands."

The problem  not to put too fine a point on it is that Tony is a self-centered jerk.

The L.A. betting operation sails along happily at first.  But after a couple police raids in 1987 earn Lankester a criminal record, she and Tony exit the business. They marry and "go straight."

It's temporary, though. The betting operation moves to the Dominican Republic in 1988, where management assures Lankester, Tony and others workers, there will be no problems because sports gambling is legal in the Caribbean island nation. Long story short: They have problems. Lots of them.

While the FBI is trying to shut the business down, and local police are harassing management to extract bribes, Tony's self-centered tendencies are only enhanced by his new-found alcohol and drug addictions. Lankester divorces him yes! but then bizarrely lets him back into her life and her bed. Sigh.  

One thing is clear. No one on the Dominican Republic Tourist Board is going to be handing out this book to prospective visitors. While Lankester says that she liked living there, the picture she paints of the country is far from inviting.

It is a country where a tiny collection of rich people ignore the widespread poverty around them, Lankester says. Racism is so severe that a light-skinned black can shoot and kill a dark-skinned person in public with no repercussions. The police are both corrupt and incompetent. The so-called legal system is dysfunctional and the jails Lankester can personally attest  are horrific.

"Dangerous Odds" turns things upside down in many ways, putting the reader on the side of the criminals and make police often the bad guys. Somehow it works, and there's enough surprises to keep you turning pages right to the end.

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