Back in the day, mystery novels used to feature detectives, for the most part; occasionally reporters or journalists would enter the action. These days, we find mysteries surrounding vintners, little-old-lady cat lovers, used-car salesmen, even bed-and-breakfast owners. Among the most fascinating of these new-age sleuths is gamesman Tony Valentine, a retired cop available for hire by casino owners to assist them in uncovering crooked gamblers. Valentine made his debut in Grift Sense (2001) and returns for his fourth appearance in Loaded Dice. The series is particularly convincing because its author, James Swain, is an authority on casino scams, as proven by the tidbits on the how-tos of cheating which pepper the text. In this latest installment, Valentine travels to Las Vegas to investigate a lovely "amateur" who is able to break the bank at blackjack. (Did I mention that the blackjack whiz bears an uncanny resemblance to Valentine's sorely missed deceased wife?) Before Valentine has time to suss out her system, he is embroiled in a much higher stakes scenario, one which threatens to blow the proverbial lid right off Sin City. Swain is a master storyteller, often mentioned in the same breath with Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen. His characters, especially Valentine and his ne'er-do-well son Gerry, are particularly well drawn; the desperation of the gamblers is palpable; the plots strong and superbly fleshed out. It is a pleasure to award the June Tip of the Ice Pick Award to James Swain.


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