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Nick Stone
King Of Swords
560 pages
King of Swords is Nick Stone's follow-up to his critically acclaimed, multi-award winning bestseller, Mr Clarinet.

Not that I've read that one yet.. But having read King Of Swords I think I definetely will!

King of Swords is set in the Miami of the early eighties, when the city had gone from being "America's playground" to "Murder Capital USA". Having just been to Miami ourselves really helps visualizing the story.

We meet Max Mingus, who works for an elite unit of the Miami PD called the Miami Task Force (MTF), which operates more like a private army than an actual police division. If this sounds far-fetched, it's not. There were not one, but two such police units in Miami at the time, known as CENTAC, which operated a shoot to kill policy on drug traffickers.

Max and his partner, Joe Liston, investigate a seemingly routine death in a monkey-only zoo called Primate Park. The victim is a Haitian man, who, an autopsy later reveals, was either fed or swallowed a potion containing a shredded tarot card - the King of Swords. When Max and Joe go to visit the man's family, they find them all slaughtered.

As Max and Joe investigate, they are sucked further and further into a vortex of murder, ritual sacrifice and black magic, getting ever closer to the man rumoured to be behind it all - Solomon Boukman, a Haitian gang leader.

Stone has opened up the narrative to tell the story from the point of view of one of Boukman's gang members as well, a vain but ultimately hapless pimp called Carmine. When you first encouter him Carmine seems to have rolled straight from the pages of a great lost Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines novel, but several pages in and you get under the facade. You meet Carmine's real boss - his VERY scary mother, Eva. Eva is a fortune teller with a highly refined sense of smell (you must really read it); she's also a Haitian Lady Macbeth, with a sadistic streak.

One of the incredible things about King of Swords is how you initially loathe Carmine, but finally - grudgingly - wind up rooting for him as he tries to dig his way out of the morass of evil that is his life. In many ways his grasping towards some kind of salvation, mirrors Max Mingus' attempts to do the right thing, despite being mired in a similar kind of corruption himself.

Carmine and Eva aren't the only unforgettable characters populating King of Swords either. There's Solomon Boukman - deeply sinister, but only ever glimpsed in shadows - a man whose mythology is somehow left intact at the very end of the book. Then there's his sweet-munching obese hitman, Bonbon (who wears a variety of dentures, including a set based on pirahna teeth). And there's Risquee, Carmine's nemesis - a prostitute he double crosses - think Lil Kim with even more attitude, who, in one of the funniest chapters in the book, tells Carmine he has no "pimp etiks", before concluding "You ain't no pimp - you a PIMP-el!".

But Stone isn't just good at writing bad or at best conflicted guys. Max's friend - and, in King of Swords, partner - Joe Liston is the book's conscience: an African-American cop in a then predominantly racist force (at the start of the book, the city is recovering from an infamous race riot where four white Miami PD officers were acquitted of killing an African-American man called Arthur McDuffie in cold blood, after a car chase - shades of Rodney King here), trying to stay true to both himself and his ideals while everything and everyone around him is going to hell in a bucket. Joe Liston is a carefully drawn character - dignified and moral, yet without a hint of self-righteousness. There's a speech towards the end of the book where he tells his redneck boss where to go that is surely the kind of thing anyone who's ever hated their boss has wanted to say at some point or another.

Apart from the narrative structure and the location (turn of the 80s Miami is a shabby, rundown place - faithfully brought back to life), where King of Swords differs quite substantially from Mr Clarinet is in the pacing. It's a big book, but boy does it FLY! Virtually from the first page. I read it in two days. It's also - in parts - very very funny. Check out the monkeys at the beginning, practically every part with Risquee, some of Carmine's hapless misadventures, the locker room dialogue between Max and Joe when Joe tells Max that churches are better places than nightclubs to meet women.

OVerall, I can definetely say this is the best books I've read this year, and one of the best ever, and therefor..

Highly Recommended!
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