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by Nick Stone
Michael Joseph, August 2007
504 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 071814922X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Nick Stone's MR CLARINET was one of the books of last year . . . and the fact it was a debut novel was even more remarkable. It was rich, complex, thoroughly scary, and peeled back its characters and Haitian setting like an onion.

KING OF SWORDS is a prequel that takes us back to 1980s Miami where our man, Max Mingus, is still in the police and fighting a losing battle against the drugs that are over-whelming the streets. Miami is a city on the edge of racial unrest, ruled over by a racist police force. At the centre of the book are Max, a white man carrying the surname of a black jazz musician and who's never been out with a white woman, and his friend and partner Joe Liston, a black man in a bigoted police department.

As the book opens, Max and Joe get called out to a deeply weird death at the Primate Park. The dead man has a partially-digested tarot card in his stomach and the whole of his family has been slaughtered. As the cops investigate, their paths cross that of pimp Carmine Desamours and his seriously creepy mother Eva. And these paths lead back to Solomon Boukman, a man few have seen but about whom countless stories abound.

Stone's writing is sharp, vivid and utterly impossible to get out of your mind oh boy, where do I start? There's the killer with the terrifying false teeth, the scenes of stomach-turning violence, Carmine and his sinister mother who insists on bathing him, the courtroom death, the twisted sacrifices that give the book its name . . .

The book has a lush richness, from the heat and sudden rains to the rare and expensive Tarot cards used by Eva. Stone has a rare and impressive gift for world-building. And he can also create the most stunningly-memorable characters that I guarantee you will never be able to forget.

Max is the archetypal flawed hero, and one of the many strengths of KING OF SWORDS is the examination of the close and complex friendship between Max and Joe (who acts as the moral voice of the book) and between Max and Burns, his father-figure. It's so rare to be able to praise a genre novel for both outstanding characterisation and flawless plotting but Stone controls both effortlessly. The writing takes your breath away.

The snag with prequels is that you know just who'll be making it through to the end unless the writer does a Patricia Cornwell and cheats the reader big-time. Stone is far too good a writer to need any gimmicks, and it really doesn't matter that you might have read MR CLARINET first.

If you thought the marvellous George Pelecanos was out there by himself as the king of portraying US cities ridden by racial problems and of crime fiction that drills to the heart of society, think again. Stone is a magnificent talent.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, July 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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