cover image MR. LUCKY


James Swain, . . Ballantine, $19.95 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-345-47544-2

In the stunning opener, gambler Ricky Smith takes a swan dive from a burning balcony into a pool as the Riverboat Casino in Vegas goes up in flames. Smith gets up, walks across the street to the Mint and proceeds to win a cool million, never losing a hand. The odds say no one's that lucky. Tony Valentine, head of Grift Sense, a gambling consulting company, gets called in to find out exactly how Ricky cheated, so the casino doesn't have to pay. For his fifth outing (Sucker Bet , etc.), Swain presents his 63-year-old retired cop with his most involved mystery yet. Readers gain expected info on chip scams, while the plot goes delightfully over the top like Agatha Christie at her wildest, with gypsies, drug cartels and one piece of misdirection after another (not least that dive from the balcony). Occasional preachiness interrupts the action, as Tony explains how awful killing bad guys makes you feel—but he still keeps shooting them in the head. The narrative nails gambling cold, noting that televised poker has convinced millions they know how to play: "Professionals had a name for these new players. They called them suckers." Agent, Chris Calhoun at Sterling Lord Literistic. (Mar. 1)

Forecast: An eight-city author tour and Michael Connelly's unusually long blurb will give a boost, but new readers should realize Swain is not yet in the same league as Leonard or Westlake.