Sunday, April 24, 2016

James Swain and Tony Valentine Leave the Reader Hanging

I've been a huge fan of James Swain's Tony Valentine series from the time the first book in the series, Grift Sense, was published. But the first time I read this entry, it really annoyed me and then it annoyed me all over again the second time around, even though I knew what was coming.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Valentine is an ex-cop from Atlantic City who retired and opened a firm called Grift Sense. Tony is a consultant who helps casinos combat "grifters" who attempt to cheat at casino games. Tony excels at spotting the myriad of ways in which unscrupulous people attempt to gain an illegal edge over the casinos. He's a unique and very engaging protagonist, and in telling these stories, James M. Swain exposes a variety of interesting cons that grifters have used over the years.

Tony also has a son, Gerry, who has been a pain in the ass from day one. But Tony loves his son; he constantly supports him and has given him chance after chance after chance to straighten up and fly right. He's now even taken Gerry into the business with him in the hope that this will encourage the kid to grow up. The best one can say is that Gerry is making progress, but as this book suggests, he's still got a long way to go.

The story opens with Gerry in the hospital, comforting a friend who is dying. The friend insists that he has developed a fool-proof way to cheat at poker. He taught the system to some guys who are going to use it in a poker tournament in Vegas, only now they're refusing to pay him. Someone else has offered to buy the system for $100,000. Gerry's dying friend wants him to make the sale and give the money to the dying man's mother.

Gerry knows that his father would definitely not approve, but a friend's a friend and so Gerry agrees. But while Gerry steps out of the room, someone slips in, finishes off the dying friend and steals the bag containing the secret system. The only thing remaining is a card that the dying man is clutching from the Celebrity Casino in Vegas.

Gerry appeals to his father for help in avenging the murder of his friend. Tony reluctantly agrees, with the understanding that Gerry will take his wife and child on a vacation while Tony sorts things out. Tony goes to Vegas and checks into the Celebrity, which is hosting the World Poker Showdown. A novice player named Skip DeMarco is beating the pants off of seasoned players and advancing rapidly toward the finals of the tournament. One of the other professional players insists that DeMarco is cheating. Tony agrees that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to be as good or as lucky as DeMarco appears, but if he is cheating, Tony can't figure out how.

The situation is quickly complicated by the fact that Gerry being Gerry, he breaks his promise to his father and flies to Vegas instead of going on vacation. He's determined to figure out who killed his friend, but before long he's in a world of trouble and this time even his father may not be able to save him.

The story progresses along several tracks as Tony attempts to save his son while at the same time trying to figure out how Skip DeMarco is cheating his way through the poker tournament. It's a very entertaining romp and then suddenly, with absolutely no notice, the book simply ends. Swain wraps up the thread relating to Gerry's situation, but as the reader turns the last page of the book, the poker tournament is still underway and Tony still has absolutely no idea how DeMarco might be gaming the system.

This is why I and, I suspect, an awful lot of other readers were left so frustrated with the book. The main plot ends right in the middle of the damned story and the next book in the series, Deadman's Bluff, picks up right where this one left off. There's absolutely no indication on the cover that this novel is part of a two-book series and that the reader will be left hanging until the second book appears.

Like most readers, I don't expect every thread of a crime novel to be neatly tied off at the end of the book, but I don't think it unreasonable to expect that the main plot will somehow be resolved. The fact that Swain leaves the reader hanging like this really angered me when I first read the book and, as I suggested above, it angered me all over again this time, even though this time the next book is sitting right next to this one on my shelf and I can turn to it immediately. Four stars reduced to three for initially making me wait several months to see how the story would end.

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