cover image GRIFT SENSE


James Swain, . . Pocket, $23.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-7434-0622-2

Billed as one of the best card-handlers in the world, Swain packs this first novel with enough tidbits on the art to back up the claim. Combine that insider's knowledge with clean writing and a reasonable con, and the result is a fun read à la Elmore Leonard. A grifter named Frank Fontaine strolls into a faded Las Vegas joint, the Acropolis Resort & Casino, and cleans up at a blackjack table. Though the dealer at the table, Nola Briggs, has a spotless record, it seems impossible that Fontaine could have pulled it off alone. The club's owner, Nick Nicocropolis, calls in consultant Tony Valentine, a retired cop from Atlantic City who's an expert on casino scams. Tony is puzzled by this one: he watches the surveillance tape repeatedly, but he can't figure out how Fontaine is doing it. Even more mysterious to Tony is that Fontaine obviously enjoys the attention he attracts. Good hustlers like to rake in their chips as inconspicuously as possible; it's the only way they can continue to work. Tony heads for Vegas, where he meets up with a group of near-stereotypes who are saved from that fate by some nice details. The plot unfolds, and our hero is properly modest and clever. Quirkiness is occasionally forced and names are singularly unimaginative. The domestic scenes in the book, with Tony's neighbor Mabel or his son Gerry, are a little stilted and unconvincing, but the heart of the book lies in the dubious charms of a second-rate Las Vegas casino, and there the author does a terrific job. Agent, Jennifer Hengen at Sterling Lord. (June 12)

Forecast:As Ricky Jay and David Mamet (in House of Games) have shown, this kind of authentic picture of con men and card tricks has wide appeal. Targeted hand-selling could reach beyond the mystery market.