I believe that the hallmark of a good book --- of a good writer ---
is the ability to attract, and hold, a reader who has little or no
interest in the core subject matter. James Swain, by this
definition, is an excellent writer. I have little interest in or
understanding of gambling, yet Swain's Tony Valentine novels, set
against the backdrop of the gambling industry, are on my must-read
list. Swain's knowledge of not only the nuts and bolts of the
gaming industry but also of its history would be enough to hold
one's interest, whether one is familiar with the relative value of
poker chips or not. Swain's ability to weave this knowledge into a
plausible situation while presenting his story in a compelling
narrative makes his work irresistible.
Tony Valentine is a gaming consultant who is retained by casinos to
identify grifters and the methods that they employ. LOADED DICE
finds Valentine returning to Las Vegas for a twofold purpose. One
is to demonstrate Deadlock, a computerized device that card cheats
are using to rake in illegitimate blackjack pots. The other is
Valentine's son, Gerry. Gerry, who has had a number of ups and
downs, is in Las Vegas and attending a gambling school in order to
learn the science of card counting so that he can assist Valentine
in his consulting business.
Gerry, however, has gone AWOL, and Valentine fears that he is on an
illegal frolic of his own. Indeed, Gerry has fallen in with two of
his fellow students, brothers whose intentions are far more
nefarious than cheating at gambling. While trying to ascertain
Gerry's whereabouts, Valentine uncovers an ingenious plot by the
owners of a string of casinos to bankrupt another house. Valentine
finds himself racing along twin tracks, trying to save a casino
while extricating his son from a situation that is on the brink of
creating havoc on the city of Las Vegas and its residents.
Swain does an excellent job of explaining the ins and outs not only
of casino gambling but also of casino management. What is
especially impressive about Swain is that his narrative never
lurches to a grinding halt while a particular aspect of his subject
matter is explained. Swain seamlessly incorporates his explanation,
frequently with the use of anecdotes, into the narrative. As a
result the reader learns the meaning of the term "past-posting,"
finds out what a "sawdust joint" is, and discovers that
"four-walling" is a tough way to earn a living. Swain also pulls
off the neat trick of bringing a noir feel and atmosphere to Las
Vegas, that most brightly illuminated of American cities.
Yet LOADED DICE is not your typical thriller. Valentine is in his
sixties, but he has aged well, to say the least. For those of us
who are closer to that chronological benchmark than we like to
admit, it's gratifying to read a series that presents a senior
citizen who is able to show the younger set how the job gets done.
LOADED DICE is also, perhaps most importantly, a story of
forgiveness and redemption, of second and even third chances, of
mistakes and corrections. There is something for everyone in LOADED
Swain has, over the short course of a few novels (this is his
fourth), created a memorable and riveting series and character.
Don't miss LOADED DICE, or Swain.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 30, 2010