Meet James Swain every Tuesday night at the Hollander Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida.
421 4th Ave N, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
421 4th Ave N, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
On a recent Tuesday evening in the Tap Room, the cozy restaurant in the Hollander Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg, a young boy watched a man pour a deck of cards between his hands like water, pluck from the deck eight different cards chosen by onlookers, and drop a tiny red ball into a silver cup — and pull out a baseball.
"Whoa! How did you do that?" the boy gasped.
Good question, and pretty much the same question that led the magician, James Swain, to write his latest book.
Swain, 58, who lives in Odessa with his wife, Laura, has three careers. He has worked for years in advertising, shifting lately into "nothing but digital," he says. He is also an internationally respected magician who has published books about the art and craft of magic. He hadn't performed for a while and recently started doing the weekly gig at the Hollander because, he says, "I practice an hour, an hour and a half every day, but it's not like performing."
And then there's his third career: novelist. Swain has just published his 17th book of crime fiction. His earlier books, many of them bestsellers, include a series about Tony Valentine, a casino security consultant; another series about Jack Carpenter, an ex-cop who investigates abductions; a couple of books about magician Peter Warlock; and several stand-alones.
His new book, Take Down, is different. It's a fast-paced caper that focuses not on the people who solve crimes, but the ones who commit them. Its main character, Billy Cunningham, is a bright, charming young man who leads a seven-person crew that scams Las Vegas casinos for a living — a very good living indeed. Just take a gander at Billy's penthouse in the Turnberry Towers and his Maserati, if you need proof.
Swain has long had an interest in gambling and gambling scams, both of which have elements in common with magic: deft card handling, diverting the attention of observers, staying one step ahead. That last, Swain says, is a key trait for successful grifters: "They're always thinking ahead, they always have a plan B."
Take Down grew out of his acquaintance with a real-life crew of casino scammers he met in 2008. He has interviewed many professional cheaters over the years for his books, but these people operated on another level, he says. "They just blew me away. I'd never seen anybody like them."
Swain had gone to Las Vegas on assignment for Men's Journal magazine to write a story about poker hustlers. "Cheating at poker is easy," he says with a slight eye roll, nothing to get a guy like him excited.
But after he was introduced to the crew, they invited him to watch them scam a casino craps table. It's an operation that is depicted in the second chapter of Take Down, and Swain says he was flabbergasted by the skill and cool required to pull it off.
"I was watching the whole thing from the bar," he says, "and I was sure they were going to get caught, and I'd get arrested just for being there. I had my alibi all ready."
Ah, thinking ahead. The alibi? "I was just watching those beautiful women."
The women are two essential members of the seven-person crew, in the book and in real life, Swain says. Not only are they beautiful; their prior experience as performers in porn films means they really know how to flaunt it, making them irresistible distractions. And they know how to act.
One move in the craps scam involves a crew member, called the mechanic for his skill at handling cards and dice, pretending to accidentally carom a die off the table while actually pocketing it so it can be taken out of the casino and altered.
The women's role is to act as if the die has glanced off them in its flight. So convincing was their acting that, Swain says, "I knew just what they were doing, but I would swear I saw that die fly off the table."
Swain didn't get arrested, and neither did the crew. The writer was so intrigued he asked their permission to write a novel about them. Sure, they said — if he didn't mind waiting for five years. By then, they expected to have made enough money to retire (lavishly) and leave the country, which, Swain says, is just what they've done.
"They're not doing this stuff anymore. They're teaching other people how to do it. You can get arrested for scamming, but it's not a crime to teach someone else how to do it."
Swain is something of a teacher himself. At the Tap Room, two members of his audience are professional magicians, Geoff Williams of St. Pete Beach and British "comedy magic" performer Martin Cox. Swain "has such great skills," Cox says, noting this is his second visit to see him perform during his own U.S. tour. "He's a true artist."
Swain began doing magic as a kid; when he was 12, he and David Copperfield had the same magic teacher. Swain began writing almost as early, at 15, and studied the craft at New York University, where his teachers included Ralph Ellison and Anatole Broyard.
Take Down is a fine example of his skills in that realm. It's a hold-your-breath recounting of Billy's spectacular, complex scheme to rip off a sleazy casino owner and his sadistic wife for millions of dollars while trying to catch another crew of scammers. It's all based on the real-life crew's exploits, Swain says, and there's more where that came from. "The final chapter leaves the swinging door open for them to come back."
Read the article on the Tampa Bay Times site here.