James Swain is best known for his Tony Valentine novels, set in
the world of casinos and populated by grifters, cardsharps,
hustlers and cheats of all descriptions. Valentine is an expert at
catching these guys while describing their methods; Swain himself
is a renowned sleight-of-hand magician who, like Valentine, is an
expert on cons and scams. His latest book, MIDNIGHT RAMBLER, is a
complete departure from his previous novels, to the extent that
there is no gambling; there are cons, schemes and scams, however,
and the stakes are much higher than mere money.
The protagonist is an ex-cop named Jack Carpenter, who resigned
from the police force after severely beating Simon Skell, aka the
Midnight Rambler, a suspect in a serial killer investigation.
Although Skell ultimately was convicted of one murder, Carpenter's
subsequent media notoriety and his reaction to it cost him his job,
family, sobriety and most significantly his self-respect. His skill
at tracking abducted children, however, is such that he is still in
demand when law enforcement is stuck.
What is left of Carpenter's life is about to come unraveling apart
when a grisly discovery threatens to capsize Skell's conviction.
Everyone, including a popular radio talk show host, begins piling
on him, and things only get worse as it begins to appear that
Carpenter not only fabricated the evidence against Skell, but also
may be more deeply involved --- and in a more chilling way --- in
the murders than was originally thought. Carpenter has no choice
but to revisit the evidence and uncovers a conspiracy that is more
diabolical than he previously suspected, even as he himself becomes
the subject of police scrutiny, and the lives of those he knows and
loves hang in the balance.
Swain is nothing short of marvelous here. Just to illustrate: there
is one segment of MIDNIGHT RAMBLER where Carpenter is asked to
assist personnel at Disney World in the investigation of what
appears to be a child abduction. His account of Carpenter's
step-by-step investigation --- even as the chances increase that
the missing child is gone forever --- is first-rate and dead-on,
and his description of Disney World and its environs will make
those who have been there before feel as if they dropped right back
into the park. You will also keep extra-close eyes on your young
children, no matter how vigilant you may be now. And try --- just
try --- to put MIDNIGHT RAMBLER down before reading it at least
once. It can't be done. This is a book destined for this year's
"Best Of" lists.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011