Tampa Bay Times: Review: James Swain’s ‘The King Tides’ a swift Florida mystery

Swain builds a dark mystery in The King Tides that becomes more bizarre with each twist, but he anchors it in assured storytelling and believable details. And in Lancaster and Daniels, he gives us characters we want to meet again.

Most parents of pretty teenage daughters are prepared to see boys mooning over their girls.

But the parents of Nicki Pearl are not prepared for the growing number of adult men — all of them strangers — who seem to be stalking their daughter in the three months since they moved to Fort Lauderdale. When a pair of men armed with chloroform and a wheelchair try to abduct her during a shopping trip to the mall, the Pearls know they need help.

The local police suggest they hire a bodyguard for Nicki, which leads them to interview a lone-wolf investigator named Jon Lancaster. Money is no object for the family, but they’re underwhelmed by their first impression of Lancaster, a short, blunt-spoken guy with a potbelly and a Jimmy Buffett T-shirt. It won’t take long for the case to escalate dramatically — and for the Pearls to realize Lancaster is the man they need.

James Swain, who lives in Odessa, has written 20 mystery novels, including series about gambling investigator Tony Valentine and magician Peter Warlock. (Swain himself is a skilled magician and expert on gambling crime.)

In his latest novel, The King Tides, Swain introduces Lancaster, a former Navy SEAL and police officer with exceptional skills and fierce determination. After a video of his risky but successful rescue of a kidnapped child went viral, bringing him fame and some fortune, he left the force and became a private investigator.

The Pearls might be sniffy about Lancaster’s appearance — he was working undercover on another case and didn’t have time to change before he met them — but they aren’t imagining the danger their daughter is in. While they’re interviewing him at their waterfront home, Nicki, who’s sunbathing in the back yard, is abducted by two men in a boat, who speed for open water. Lancaster’s crack shooting and the teen’s own initiative save her, but he’s convinced the stalkers are deadly serious.

Lancaster uses an array of high-tech tools in his work, and, having been a viral sensation himself, he suspects Nicki’s plight might have something to do with the internet, and possibly with online pornography. Her protective parents insist that can’t be true, and Nicki herself seems like a genuine innocent.

What Lancaster discovers as he pursues the case seems contradictory: It appears unlikely Nicki did anything to ignite her stalkers’ interest, yet growing evidence points to the men’s common involvement in child porn. Things take an even more sinister turn as he uncovers connections to a serial killer case.

Lancaster, Swain writes, "had dealt with serial killers before. What always surprised him was their ordinariness. They were not cannibals who wore flesh masks and danced naked beneath the full moon. They went to ball games, ate fast food, and wore regular clothes. They were as dull as dirt, except when that inner alarm clock in their heads went off, telling them to kill again. Then the monsters came out."

To catch such monsters, Lancaster doesn’t hesitate to bend the law. He soon joins forces with an FBI agent, Beth Daniels, who has her own surprising connections both to Nicki and to the stalkers — and who is obsessed, perhaps dangerously so, with solving the case.

Swain’s style in The King Tides (named for the exceptionally high tides that often flood South Florida streets) is pared down, his pacing swift. The plot turns on an engrossing combination of Lancaster’s technological skills and his aggressive personality, which is moderated by his deep empathy with victims.

Florida plays an important role in the book, as Lancaster travels from the Pearls’ posh neighborhood to some of South Florida’s ugliest slums, with stops in the region’s trademark traffic jams. (Swain also includes some shoutouts to other Florida crime fiction writers.)

Swain builds a dark mystery in The King Tides that becomes more bizarre with each twist, but he anchors it in assured storytelling and believable details. And in Lancaster and Daniels, he gives us characters we want to meet again.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Read the article on the Tampa Bay Times site here. 


Tampa Bay Times: James Swain deals a new novel about casino scams, 'Take Down'

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.”

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. 


An Interview with Lee Child


Lee Child and James Swain discuss Bad Action. Lee Child is the internationally bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series.

Lee Child: I’ll start with an obvious question.   Have you ever cheated a casino?
Jim Swain: Only in my dreams.

LC: Then how do you get the material for your books?
JS: I’ve had a lifelong interest in con men and scam artists that dates back to when I was learning magic in New York.  On Saturday afternoons, the local magicians would gather in the back room of a Chinese restaurant and perform tricks for each other.  Occasionally card hustlers would join us and be persuaded to perform.  I caught the bug then.

LC: Were the hustlers you saw good?
JS:  Phenomenal.   They had to be.  If they got caught cheating, they’d get hurt.

LC:My first exposure to your work was the Tony Valentine series, which also dealt with con men and hustlers.  What was the inspiration for these new books? 
JS: In 2008 I was hired by a men’s magazine to write a story about cheating at poker.  While in Las Vegas doing research, I became friendly with a crew of grifters that were ripping off the casinos.   They let me go into a casino and watch them scam a craps game for thirty grand.   It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  Afterwards, I begged them to let me write a series of books about them.  

LC:   What made the scam amazing?  Outside of the fact that they got away with it.
JS:   Casino employees are inherently suspicious.   The crew convinced the employees working the craps game that they were suckers.  When the employees’ guard came down, the crew switched the dice in the game and ripped the place off.

LC: How does that work?  
JS: It’s a well orchestrated act.  The crew practices playing Iggys, or ignorant tourists, until they have their roles down.  They video-tape themselves and critique their performances the way actors would.  When it comes to the con, the first impression is everything.   I liken it to the dead possum my dogs found in the backyard.    After I herded the dogs into my house, I went outside to bury the possum, only to discover it was gone.  

LC: Which is where the expression playing possum comes from.
JS: Exactly.   I still laugh when I think about it. 

LC: Are you fooled by these scams?
All the time.    

LC: I’m interested to hear how you got the crew to confide in you.  Was it because of your background in sleight-of-hand magic?
I think so.  I did some card magic for them and they liked what they saw.  Sleight-of-hand magic and cheating have quite a bit in common.

LC: There’s a family of hustlers in this book called the Gypsies.   Where did you draw your inspiration for them?
Years ago I got a phone call from a blackjack dealer who’d been recruited by a family of cheats to rip off a casino.  We talked for hours about how the family operated and the code of ethics they lived by.  They were my inspiration for the Gypsies. 

LC: In the story, your main character helps another cheat who’s gotten himself in hot water because the Thieves Code requires him to do so.  Do people who steal from casinos really have a set of rules they live by?
 Believe it or not, they do.     

LC: I know you, yet have never seen you do a trick.  Is that on purpose?
 No. The next time we get together, I’ll show you something.
LC: Looking forward to it already.  If it’s amazing, I’ll rip it off and put it in a Reacher book.


The Sunshine Tax

While inquiring on what winning casinos to play, a Canadian couple is swindled by a Nevada rest-stop attendant. Writer/Director: Brett Hill DOP: Vlad Horodinca Editor: Brett Hill Actor: Jade Proulx-Chartier Actor: Gordon Masten Actor: Frederic Lemay Author: James Swain Producer: Brett Hill Producer: Ramez El-Hajj Funder: BravoFACT

Phil Jason Book Review


Casino scam thriller offers high stakes suspense

Take Down, by James Swain. Thomas & Mercer. 430 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

In his latest novel, James Swain is back to painting the milieu in which he has no peers: the gambling scene. Set in Las Vegas and focused on a new casino hotel that serves as a money laundering front for a big drug operation, this novel has all the thrills, chills, and insider information one could ever hope for. Billy Cunningham, a thirty year old professional cheater, becomes a strange kind of moral pillar in a ruthless world where the only moral code involves scoring big money and staying alive.  

For people like Billy Cunningham, and his one-time flame Maggie Flynn, the enemy is the gaming board, a group empowered to protect the public and the gaming industry from scammers and thieves. However, the gaming board agents whom we meet in this tale are always ready to abuse their power and might just as well be the subjects of investigations for their own corruption. It seems that at times that this powerful board colludes with the worst elements in the industry.

Should the owner of the Galaxy, a big-time narcotic distributor, be the recipient of the gaming board’s protection or the subject of an investigation?

The board makes deals to pursue its priority cases. It lessens or drops criminal penalties in exchange for evidence leading to the successful prosecution of bigger fish.

The set-up of the story goes like this: Billy has a fantastic, convoluted plan to duplicate the gold-colored, high denomination chips used in the Galaxy casino and then manage to cash them in. This would result in a huge, multi-million dollar “take down.” At the same time, he is in on the Galaxy payroll – checking their security and promising to foil the upcoming scam of another slick team of scoundrels known as the Gypsies.

In fact, Billy hopes to use the cover of the commotion regarding the Gypsy “wedding scam,” which is that group’s own cover for a slot machine payoff manipulation, to cover his own counterfeit gold chip operation.

As readers watch Billy prepare his team for its biggest trick, they get to meet a fascinating group of characters who must use their skills and play their roles with precision or the scam will collapse – as will their outlaw careers. For Billy, loyalty is the ultimate necessity for smooth functioning; therefore is very generous in buying that loyalty from his team members. Beyond that, he really cares about them and shows it in many additional ways. . . .

Read the article on Phil Jason's Book Review here. 


The Ed Bernstein Show—Interview with James Swain

Interview with author James Swain. James Swain is an American crime fiction author and magician.

Chop Cup

from "Miracles: The Magic of James Swain" Volume 3

Miracles—The Magic of James Swain

For years, Jim Swain's name has been associated with some of the finest cheating material and classical magic in the industry. He doesn't do conventions, and he rarely surfaces on the scene. Yet he did, for one historic weekend, record all his finest material in four volumes that are now available for instant download.