KING OF SWORDS is the second book from Nick Stone - MR CLARINET debuted in 2006 creating a big stir - tense and scary, set in Haiti, immersed in that country's culture and in voodoo in particular, MR CLARINET was a notable debut.
KING OF SWORDS, whilst it is the second book, is actually a prequel to the events in MR CLARINET - set in 1980's Miami where the central character from both books, Max Mingus, is still in the police force. Miami is portrayed very much as a city clinging to the edge of civilisation - drugs are overwhelming the community, people smuggling is rife and there is increasing racial tension - particularly between the police and the immigrant communities drawn to the city. Many of these people are refugees escaping poverty or oppression in their home lands and many of them have come to make money and they don't much care how they do it.
The book starts out with the oppressive, weird, creepy discovery of a body in the middle of a Primate Park - dead for sometime, the animals are unsettled by the corpse's presence and the police are unsettled by the animals. The discovery of a partially-digested tarot card in the dead man's stomach is one thing - his business colleagues dead in the boot of his car is another - but the discovery of his entire family butchered makes it another case altogether. The paths of the investigating officers cross that of pimp Carmine Desamours and his voodoo priestess mother Eva. Eventually all paths lead to the mysterious Solomon Boukman - a man everyone has heard of, but very few have seen.
If all of this is starting to sound a bit complicated - it is. There's an awful lot that happens in the early part of this book, and that's possibly one of the areas that I struggled with the most - dead bodies building up; personal things happening to Max and to his partner Joe; menacing and unethical behaviour from their boss; Eva and Carmine had their own stuff going on and it all got very very busy. Obviously there's an awful lot of connections being built and frequently the writing just carried you along - but occasionally I found my attention wandering or having to back track as I got lost in the cast or in the events.
That's not to say that much of the writing isn't visual, stark, sometimes quite lyrical and, as with the earlier book, graphic to the point of stomach-churning. KING OF SWORDS builds a world in which these people live - that frankly I'm not sure you'd even want to visit, but you are drawn into some of the elements of what's happening, whilst being utterly repulsed by other components of the book.
The only other complaint with KING OF SWORDS is that there is so much build-up, this world that's generated around these crimes, that the ending and resolutions seem to come in a rush. There's a bit of a tendency to have the inexplicable happen and then explain it away a bit later in the narrative. It got a bit breathless, it seemed in too much of a hurry for a book that ultimately is 560 pages. Mind you, if you've read MR CLARINET first, you're going to be able to make a pretty reasonable guess about the outcomes for many of the main characters - probably doesn't matter too much - the ride could be more than enough, nevermind the ending.