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THE EIGHT OF SWORDS


By David Skibbins

St. Martin's Minotaur, April 2005 ($23.95)
ISBN: 0-312-33906-2

Reviewed by Cherie Jung

Initially I was drawn to this book because of the reference to tarot cards in the title and on the book cover. I also read tarot cards, but only privately. You won't find me on the sidewalks of Berkeley (or "Bezerkley" as it was called when I lived in the Bay Area). So fair warning, I may not be the most objective reviewer when it comes to THE EIGHT OF SWORDS.

For some reason, which you'll unravel as you read this book, Warren Ritter staged his own death three decades ago and eventually ended up on the streets, or sidewalks of Berkeley, California as a tarot cards reader. To him, it's just a scam -- an easy way to make a decent living with a short work week, without having to resort to anything as boring as his previous place of employment, Nordstrom's (an upscale clothing store for those of you who may not recognize the name).

Along comes Heather Wellington, a teenager who wants a reading. No problem...Well, just one problem. The cards are telling a worrisome tale. They show turmoil and struggle surrounding the girl but Warren down plays their warning. After all, it's not like he believes in mystic powers. It's pure entertainment as far as he's concerned. He's definitely not a real psychic. He says so himself.

During the reading, Heather, and Warren for that matter, endure a nasty encounter with an ex-boyfriend, gangster -- make that "gansta" -- wannabe. Warren has an uneasy feeling about the reading and later learns that Heather is missing. Shortly after the tarot reading she was kidnapped from a street nearby.

As things go in mysteries, Warren becomes suspect number one in the eyes of the police. That in itself complicates things for Warren. He's on the lam, remember, from his past life and now the police would like to fit him up for a kidnapping and more. He decides, at the urging of the tarot cards and his therapist, to take a pro-active approach and try to save the missing girl. And so the adventure begins...

First off, I should probably admit that I have a particular bias for the setting of this book. I spent a couple of decades living in the areas described by the author. The people, places, sights, sounds, and smells are all familiar to me. Just reading the descriptions of Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland brought back a flood of wonderful memories to me. However, it wasn't all nostalgia that made me like this book so much.

Not only does the author have a real feel for the atmosphere and locales of the Bay Area, but his characters come alive on the pages. Each is unique. Each is memorable. And though the word has been somewhat over used in describing characters, I'll use it, too, since I can't think of anything more appropriate. His characters are refreshing.

I recommend THE EIGHT OF SWORDS, whole-heartedly. I don't think you'll find another book this summer that will give you as much mystery and fun at the same time. I love Warren's sense of humor. There are several laugh out loud moments in this book, yet the seriousness of the crime is never diminished by making light of it.

I understand that next up in the series will be THE HIGH PRIESTESS. I can hardly wait!

David Skibbins won the 2004 Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Press Best First Traditional Mystery Contest with THE EIGHT OF SWORDS. As a side note, Skibbins was the first male writer to win this prestigious award.

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