Book Review: The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights

The Serial podcast about Adnan Syed’s murder conviction sparked a profusion of so-called “true crime” podcasts, many focusing on unsolved murders or assessing whether particular deaths were the result of foul play. While several of those are worth listening to, The Murder of Sonny Liston displays the advantage of the written word.

The question of whether boxer Sonny Liston’s heroin overdose was actually a murder has been a subject of speculation for decades. While author Shaun Assael’s The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights can’t settle that question, the book portrays a Las Vegas on the verge of its listonheydays. There’s the wealthy casino investors, such as Howard Hughes, and the mob influence in the city. There’s the office run by Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb, one of the most powerful men in Vegas, if not Nevada. There’s the seedy underside of the Las Vegas Police Department in a jurisdictional muddle of the city’s explosive growth. There’s the de facto segregation of the community. And while Liston spent much of his time in African-American West Las Vegas, the man considered by many to be the angriest black man in America lived in an exclusive area of the city in a home once owned by Debby Reynolds.

Given the poverty in which he grew up, the fact he came into boxing while serving time in the Missouri State Prison and his later addiction to heroin, gentrification wasn’t something that fit Liston. The home and opportunities his celebrity brought didn’t cast out the variety of shady characters who were regular elements of and influences on his professional and personal life.

Assael clearly portrays these elements of the story. Unfortunately, while there are several candidates who may well have wanted Liston dead, that theme often seems to get lost in the emphasis on Vegas itself. Although Liston’s story makes the book a satisfactory read for those interested in him, the book is as much a history of 1960s Las Vegas as a thorough analysis of whether Liston was murdered. In fact, the latter focuses in large part on a police informant’s claims some 12 years after Liston’s death. At least the detail Assael provides elevates his exploration above the cursory views taken in most genre-related podcasts.

For all the distance he’d traveled, he was still fighting for chump change

The Murder of Sonny Liston, Shaun Assael

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