Wednesday, July 25, 2007

KING OF SWORDS by Nick Stone

Penguin, 02 August 2007, £12.99, ISBN: 9780718149222

Taking an unusual tack for a second novel, Nick Stone provides a prequel to his bestselling, award-winning debut novel, Mr Clarinet. This time around, we’re focussing on protagonist Max Mingus’s days in Chicago, detailing the first time he crossed the path of the mysterious Soloman Boukman.

There is a great risk involved with writing prequels – the most obvious being that any tension is sucked out of the room by the fact we know, in terms of the major players, who will live and die. We know here that Max must survive and even more importantly that Boukman will at some point escape to torture Max another day.

Luckily, Stone finds a way round that by writing a narrative that expands greatly on what we know about Mingus, expanding and humanising (but not softening) the character, answering several of the questions left hanging at the end of Mr Clarinet. In terms of tension, several other characters are introduced whose fates are less certain. The change to multiple character perspectives also gives way to a different kind of story and the interest lies in seeing how the threads finally converge.

As with his previous novel, Stone plays around with ideas of magic – particularly voodoo – and the hold it has over people. With Mr Clarinet, it was easy to play up the Voodoo history with the novel taking place in Haiti, which seems curiously a curiously timeless place, no matter when the novel is set. Placing King of Swords in 1980’s Miami poses a different slant on the voodoo element of the story. Had the story been set in New Orleans, it may have been easy to once more play up the mystical voodoo elements, but 1980’s Miami sets up its own curious problems.
To start with, the place and time are synonymous with Al Pacino and Martin Scorcese’s particular approach to Scarface. Stone clearly has this in mind in describing the street life in King of Swords. His lowlife scum could easily have fitted into that world or indeed the books of Elmore Leonard.

This backdrop would seem to leave little room for Voodoo to be rendered in a believable fashion, and yet somehow Stone pulls it off. Primarily because he allows the reader to question the nature of the magic and ritual. The policework and investigation is grounded. The conflict is psychologically real, and the magic of Solomon Boukman is treated carefully – never allowed to take centre stage where it could be proved or disproved, but rather lurking in the shadows where we are never sure whether to believe in it or not. One book that came to mind more than once was Walter Mosely’s Gone Fishin’ where a young Easy Rawlins encounters a kind of voodoo magic during his trip down south with Mouse.

With its solid setting, its believable edge and a character who feels real, King of Swords is an excellent book. As a prequel, it works perfectly, and somehow maintains its tension despite the inherent problems of writing a book set in a previously established character’s past. Stone is a confident writer, who already feels like he’s been around for years.

A healthy mixture of thriller and hardboiled crime novel, with a little hint of the supernatural thrown in to spice it up, King of Swords is not only the perfect follow up to Mr Clarinet but a damn fine crime thriller in its own right. If you haven’t read Stone before, I’d suggest you start right now.

Russel McLean for, 25 July 2007

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