Friday, January 16, 2009

Battling killers and cheats in Miami

Nick Stone gives us plenty of action and an authentic vision of South Florida in the days of cocaine cowboys and riots.

THE KING OF SWORDS. Nick Stone. Harper. 576 pages. $24.95

The Miami of the early 1980s has become an almost mythical place, an era steeped in the lore of Miami Vice and Scarface and seen as the epicenter for drugs and the glamour of a new South Beach. Nick Stone captures that reality in his gritty, brutal and expertly plotted The King of Swords, offering an authentic vision of South Florida along with plenty of hard-boiled action.

A few scenes of bizarre South Florida behavior crop up, but Stone uses them not for comic effect but to emphasize a society on the cusp of change. The King of Swords works equally as a police procedural, a thriller and an examination of multidimensional characters.

Stone's second novel is a prequel to the superb Mr. Clarinet,'' released in the United States last year after it had debuted in England. There Stone introduced Max Mingus, whose search for the son of a wealthy white Haitian family led him to his old nemesis -- Solomon Boukman, a drug baron with a far-reaching influence.

The King of Swords shows where the story began for Max, a detective sergeant on the elite Miami Task Force. The book is set in late 1980, wrapping up one of Miami's most tumultuous years that included the Mariel boatlift and the riots following the trial of the cops involved in the Arthur McDuffie beating. An influx of cocaine has given Miami an ``off-the-chart-and-still rising homicide epidemic.''

Max and his partner detective Joe Liston are called to the scene of a bizarre death in a primate park in Miami. But this isn't just one of those only-in-Florida crimes: The victim's entire family also has been killed, and the King of Swords tarot card is found in the man's body.

As 1980 folds into 1981, Max and Joe uncover a link to Boukman, a ruthless drug lord whose voudou practices that include human sacrifice have become legendary. Many fear him, but few people have seen his face, ``an ambiguous silhouette in the feeble light.''

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