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Mysteries

Betting on Sweet Revenge

July 03, 2002|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last year, Tony Valentine, a retired Atlantic City police detective-turned-casino troubleshooter, made his debut to well-deserved praise in James Swain's "Grift Sense." His second stroll among the high rollers, "Funny Money" (Pocket, $24, 290 pages) is even more entertaining. In it, the aging but razor-sharp sneak-spotter travels from his home in Florida to his old police stamping grounds to investigate and avenge the murder of his former partner and, not coincidentally, to discover how a man nicknamed the European continues to beat the blackjack tables at the town's biggest casino.

Part of the book's fascination comes from the author's apparently endless supply of grifter, or--to use a synonym he prefers--crossroader lore. A gambling expert and magician, Swain sprinkles the plot with descriptions of luck-enhancers that range from the logical--if a casino uses cards with a one-way back design, players can track any card that gets turned around--to the exotic--a "monkey's paw" is "a mechanical device that cheaters stick up the coin tray of a slot machine. It has a light on the end that activates the slot machine into paying out even when the reels aren't lined up correctly."

In less professional hands, these authentic-seeming bits of esoterica, however fascinating, might detract from the book's forward progress. Swain shuffles them smoothly into the story before dazzling us with an array of tricks and diversions leading to his big payoff. The mood is hard-boiled to be sure but leavened by humor, including the occasional Chandler-esque thumbnail description (a young man has "enough rings in his nose to hang a shower curtain"). I can't think of a novel I've enjoyed more this year.

Father and Son Pair Up

in Homicide Investigations

It's commonly held that one should wait until something is broken before attempting to fix it. But deputy sheriff-turned-author Michael McGarrity seems to be ignoring that bromidic advice with some measure of success. His new "The Big Gamble" (Dutton, $23.95, 273 pages), the seventh police procedural novel featuring New Mexico lawman Kevin Kerney, suggests that the splendid series may be in the midst of a significant shift in focus.

In book five, "The Judas Judge," Kerney discovered that a youthful romance with a Native American had resulted in a son, Clayton Istee, an Indian Reservation lawman who was himself a father. Their edgy relationship is explored further in "Gamble," but more than that, as both men pursue a growing list of related murders leading to a vice operation of international scope, McGarrity devotes at least half of the novel to Istee's end of the investigation. The obvious comparison would be to Tony Hillerman's books set in the Southwest featuring Navajo Tribal Policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee who, though not related by blood, share a similar relationship.

Though it lacks some of the high powered suspense of last year's "Under the Color of Law," a series standout, "Gamble's" smartly detailed police work and, on the personal front, the gradual lessening of the Kerney-Istee estrangement, keep the pages turning. It will be interesting to see if McGarrity continues to use the dual-protagonist format or if, like Hillerman, he'll give his younger hero a case and a novel all his own.

A Foodie Sleuth With

a Taste for Mystery

"Sharpshooter" by Nadia Gordon (Chronicle Books, $11.95, 272 pages) is a July novel marking its publisher's entry into the mystery field. The San Francisco-based house is known for its somewhat quirky yet visually appealing hard- and soft-covers. This new trade-sized paperback fits right in.

Its cover is attractive, and there's a reassuringly substantial heft to it that suggests quality paper and binding that won't fall apart at the beach. The real question, of course, is if it's worth taking to the beach. That would be a yes, assuming that the reader has access to enough food and drink at hand not to be driven to distraction by the book's rapturous descriptions of gourmet meals and world-class wines.

The current mystery field is overladen with foodie-sleuths--caterers, chefs, bakers, quaint little bed-and-breakfast owners. But while arriving a bit late for dinner mysteries, Gordon introduces Napa Valley restaurateur Sunny McCoskey and her idiosyncratic neighboring vintners in such a casual, easygoing manner it feels as if the series has been around for a while.

With its title reference to both an insidious grapevine-destroying insect (the glassy-winged sharpshooter) and the unknown marksman who murdered an unpopular son of Napa's reigning wine family, the novel is a little too edgy to qualify as a cozy mystery. But, like the best cozies, it abounds in charm and reader comfort. Sunny is a welcome, energetic heroine whose expertise in the kitchen and lack of it on the trail of a murderer are explored to full advantage.

She and her pals are fun to be around, particularly when they're just hanging out, sampling the local grape, talking shop and subtlety or openly expressing their feelings toward one another. There's a little letdown when the book gets around to removing the mask from the murderer. That might seriously damage a Miss Marple novel, where the puzzle is all. Here, after enjoying such good company, remarkable meals and excellent wines, it seems like something a guest should politely overlook.

Dick Lochte is the author of the prize-winning novel "Sleeping Dog" and its sequel, "Laughing Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press).

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