King of Swords – Nick Stone
It has been over four years since I read and loved Nick Stone’s debut novel Mr. Clarinet. I found the gritty mix of the detective story and the hint of the supernatural in the form of voodoo worship to be right up my street.
Quite why I waited so long to read the next in the series is beyond me.
Here is the blurb:
Miami, 1981. When Detective Max Mingus and his partner Joe are called to the scene of a death at Miami's Primate Park, it looks like another routine - if slightly bizarre - investigation. Until two things turn up: the victim's family, slaughtered; and a partly digested tarot card in the dead man's stomach. "The King of Swords" - an increasingly bloody trail leads Max and Joe first to a sinister fortune-teller and her scheming pimp son, then to the infamous Solomon Boukman. Few have ever met the most feared criminal in Miami, but rumours abound of a forked tongue, voodoo ceremonies and friends in very high places. Against a backdrop of black magic and police corruption, Max and Joe must distinguish the good guys from the bad - and track down some answers. What is the significance of the "King of Swords"? What makes those who have swallowed the card go on a killing spree just before they die? And can Max find out the truth about Solomon Boukman, before death's shadow reaches his own front door ...
As the blurb indicates, this is a prequel to Mr. Clarinet. I am not normally a fan of prequels unless they have relevance to future plot points. When they are just fleshed out stories of past events main characters happen to mention then I am normally disappointed. However, when they have a direct bearing on the way a character views their life and why their motivations are like they are, then I am much more invested in the prequel.
The latter is the case in point with King of Swords. The book focuses on three characters characters: Max Mingus, Joe Liston and Carmine. Max is the main character in Mr.Clarinet but he does not behave the same way. There are similarities of course, but in this story he is a lot more raw and despite having good intentions, he regularly walks the thin line between good and evil.
This is typified by the two people that influence his life the most. The first is his partner Joe and the other is his boss and father-like figure Eldon. Eldon is a complex character. He is as corrupt as they come but he truly believes he is delivering the greater good in his methods. His aim is to increase his empire in the police force and get the bad guys off the street. If this means cutting corners by sending known criminals down for crimes they did not commit, then so be it.
Max is only too aware of Eldon’s methods but is torn between the correct thing to do and achieving results. He can see the reasoning behind Eldon’s motivations but at the same time he recognises that he has lost his way in the implementation of those methods.
By contrast Joe is only too aware of what is going on and is deeply opposed. He has high morals and a belief in the system. He is a policeman and wants to do it the right way. It is only his like and respect for Max that clouds his judgement. The dynamic works, as rather than being a constant source of conflict and bickering, the two behave rationally and try to figure out the correct path.
Intermingled with all these politics of course is the enigmatic Solomon Boukman. A man that has built his criminal faction based on myths and legends. We mostly see Solomon through the point of view of Carmine his childhood friend. Carmine is a fascinating character in his own right. To the public he is a competent and feared pimp, but behind closed doors he is still a scared boy petrified by his despicable mother.
With such rich characters the book was always going to be readable, but the plot is tight, the pace is consistent and the criminals suitably sinister. Stone does a terrific job of portraying Solomon Boukman keeping him mysterious but at the same time believable. I know virtually nothing about the Haitian culture, but Stones description of it comes across as authentic and makes you want to learn more.
The ending is great, wrapping up all loose ends nicely. At times I was worried that it was being dragged out or in places rushed, but I think by the end of the book Stones got the narrative spot on. This was a pleasure to read and reminded me why I loved the first book so much.
My rating: 9.1