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American/Cozy Mysteries

Eight of Swords, David Skibbins, St. Martins Minotaur, $6.99.

Eight of Swords by David Skibbins

Winning the St. Martin's Malice Domestic award not only guarantees that the writer gets his or her book published, it very frequently guarantees the reader a fresh, unusual read with a different voice. The most well known winner is probably Julia Spencer-Fleming, but David Skibbins also won this award, and it is well deserved. The "voice" of Skibbins' main character, Warren Ritter, is one of the more unusual I've encountered in mystery fiction. His storytelling verve reminds me of another favorite author of mine (now sadly out of print), Martha C. Lawrence, who wrote a wonderful series about a P.I. with ESP. Warren Ritter isn't psychic, like Martha Lawrence's character, and he isn't an Episcopal priest, like Julia Spencer-Fleming's character, he's a tarot card reader who works from a folding table on the streets of Berkeley, California. A genuine 60's refugee, Warren was past of a 60's leftist group and has been underground for 30 years. In Eight of Swords, his past catches up to him - with a vengeance.

The story opens with Warren doing an uncomfortable reading for a teenager with an Eeyore cellphone. Her reading indicates danger, kidnapping and death, and while Warren can't bring himself to give her all the details, he does warn her. Warren is tormented by the reading, especially when the same creepy cards keep coming up again and again when he does readings for other clients. When the teenager, Heather, is reported kidnapped on the news that evening, Warren decides that he owes it to her to try and help her family. To that end, he talks to her mother and they agree to meet, with results that aren't so great. Warren is now forced to go further underground - with the help of a stash of money, a computer hacker and a skilled P.I. - to try and find Heather's kidnapper.

The story zooms along, and along with it, we get Warren's view of life and the world. An unapologetic leftist, that sensibility informs his personality, but so does the fact that he's left his family behind for 30 years. When a family member spots him out of the blue on a Berkeley street he feels even more exposed. He wants to run, badly, but he feels compelled to follow Heather's story to the finish. If I had a caveat with this book it would be the very small suspect pool, but the force of Warren's personality and the lively storytelling more than make up for it. This is a highly recommended first novel, with this particular reader eagerly anticipating the next book in the series.
Oh, and something really cool - if you visit David Skibbin's website, you can get a tarot reading yourself.

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