Satan’s Playground: Mobsters And Movie Stars At America’s Greatest Gaming Resort is the story of the gambling business in Tijuana, Mexico, during the 1920s—in particular, Agua Caliente, a jumbo-sized, tricked-out complex opened in 1928, at the height of Prohibition in America. Needless to say, the casinos—not to mention the easily accessible prostitution, horse racing, and alcohol surrounding them—were a rousing success with American tourists, and run by crooks from both sides of the border. Corruption was rampant: San Diego’s district attorney prosecuted a city councilman for taking bribes in 1925, only to be put on trial for the same thing a year later, and Mexico’s government was rife with underhanded activity. And the four men behind Agua Caliente—Americans Wirt Bowman, James Crofton, and Baron Long, and Mexican Abelardo Rodriguez, also known as the Border Barons—faced a threat of their own in 1929, when an Agua Caliente guard and driver were shot to death during a road robbery, resulting in a sensational investigation and trial.
Paul J. Vanderwood is professor emeritus of Mexican history at San Diego State University, and his deep knowledge of the territory and period, not to mention his clear enthusiasm for each aspect of the story he’s telling, can sometimes be exhausting. Satan’s Playground makes a lot of chronological leaps, and trying to follow all the strands, from the differences between U.S. and Mexican policy to the robbery and murder investigation to sketches of the men involved, can be trying. Vanderwood is drawn to woolly stories well outside of the Agua Caliente robbery narrative that frames the book, and they sprawl even when they’re good. (For instance, in 1916, Tijuana hired a rainmaker, but refused to pay his fee when he was too successful, and 30 inches of rain fell that January, as opposed to the average of 20 inches per annum.) But Vanderwood is a clean stylist as well as a history wonk, and the thorough portrait Satan’s Playground paints of its area and era works as both history and crime narrative.