Review

Mr. Lucky: A Novel of High Stakes

by James Swain



"Mr. Lucky" was the name of a 1943 movie starring Cary Grant, and
was also the title of a half-hour series that was broadcast for one
year during the 1959-1960 television season. Both deal with
gambling and professional gamblers. As one might expect from a
James Swain novel, his latest, also titled MR. LUCKY, deals with an
extremely, almost preternaturally, lucky gambler named Ricky Smith.
It seems that Smith cannot lose --- whether it's playing blackjack
or roulette in Las Vegas, entering a large raffle in his South
Carolina hometown, engaging in off-track betting in Virginia, or
even scratching off a lottery ticket. Tony Valentine needs to find
out why.

Readers of James Swain's previous Valentine novels expect nothing
less than a storyline that grabs the attention from first page to
last. They won't be disappointed. Valentine is in some ways a
doppelganger of Swain; Swain is considered one of the world's
leading authorities on the subjects of crooked gambling and casino
scams. The hows and whys of such matters can make for riveting
material, even if one's interest in gambling approaches the nil
spot. Swain always can be counted on to pepper his narratives with
anecdotal tales of scams gone wrong --- and right --- and MR. LUCKY
is no exception.

MR. LUCKY begins with Valentine being asked to investigate Smith,
whose luck in Vegas, and beyond, has been more than phenomenal.
Valentine travels to Smith's hometown of Slippery Rock, North
Carolina to get a bead on him and to determine whether or not he is
cheating the house everywhere he goes. Meanwhile, Valentine
dispatches his son Gerry to Gulfport, Mississippi --- otherwise
known as the Redneck Riviera --- to interview a professional card
shark who Smith soundly thrashed in a poker game. Gerry has had his
own ups and downs, mostly due to his inability to control his baser
impulses. In this case, however, he winds up in trouble when he
does the right thing, finding himself on the wrong side of the
Dixie Mafia. A chain of events results in Gerry placing himself, as
well as his wife and infant daughter, in danger. Valentine,
meanwhile, finds that his efforts in Slippery Rock have made him
some deadly enemies as well, while leading to an unexpected
explanation for Smith's run as Mr. Lucky.

Swain's ability to explain the complex scams that grifters attempt
in casinos remains first-rate. One is not tempted to go out and try
these methods; the complexity of the swindles, as well as the
methods of detection employed by the casinos (not to mention the
penalties, both legal and otherwise, that are the result of getting
caught), should be enough to deter most readers.

But MR. LUCKY is more than a plot held together by anecdotal
incidents of casino cheating. Some of the most interesting passages
in the Valentine novels have concerned Gerry's swift slide into the
dark side and his long walk back, with the forgiving help of his
father. Valentine exhibits a quiet but deep and abiding faith in
God; his continuing forgiveness of Gerry's transgressions, and
Gerry's contrition and efforts to do better, are perhaps a subtle
metaphor for Divine forgiveness and salvation. Swain doesn't hit
the reader over the head with this, but the concept permeates
throughout the novel, creating an interesting contrast to the main
action throughout.

Given that MR. LUCKY takes Valentine out of his familiar Las Vegas
environs, perhaps future novels in this series will visit other
gambling locales, each of which carries its own local
idiosyncrasies. This, as well as the continuing character dynamics
evolving between Tony and Gerry Valentine, should enable the series
to keep going strong for some time to come. Highly recommended, for
many different reasons.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011

Mr. Lucky: A Novel of High Stakes
by James Swain

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345475445
  • ISBN-13: 9780345475442