With Dark Magic, author James Swain pulls a new card from his deck, smoothly switching from hard-boiled mystery to paranormal thriller.
Swain, who lives in Odessa, has written two successful crime fiction series featuring former cops: one about Tony Valentine, a casino security expert; the other about Jack Carpenter, who specializes in recovering abducted children.
They're both gritty, real-world series. In Dark Magic, Swain, who is an accomplished magician, pulls aside the veil on another world.
Its main character, Peter Warlock, is a successful young magician with his own theater in New York's hip Meatpacking District, an edgy act and a swarm of teenage fans who discuss his tricks on Internet forums.
Edgy it may be, but Peter's act is based on ancient craft and simple tricks like having his assistants chat up audience members on the way to their seats, then feed him information via a hidden earbud so his mind-reading evokes gasps.
What no one but a small group of seven people knows is that Peter's magical powers are real. The book opens with a powerful demonstration of that. At a meeting of the seven, who call themselves the Friday night psychics, in an apartment at the Dakota on Central Park West, he has a detailed vision.
He finds himself in the middle of a mysterious disaster occurring in Times Square, killing masses of people where they stand. Among them stalks a cruel-looking stranger who seems untouched by the fatal force. And on the news ticker scrolling across the ABC News building is a sports score that tells Peter the attack is only four days away.
Peter and his colleagues have no doubt of the vision's accuracy, but they can't just call 911. It isn't that they fear the authorities won't believe them; it's that they know what happened to another psychic, Peter's friend Nemo, whose predictions of the future caught the attention of the CIA. Now Nemo's living, like it or not, at an undisclosed location in Virginia, pressed into permanent service by the agency.
Peter has no intention of joining Nemo. So he turns his considerable powers to finding out who the mystery man is, quickly discovering through a combination of magical manipulations and computer hacking that he's a professional assassin named Wolfe and that his hit list seems to consist of the seven members of the Friday night psychics.
Swain keeps the story hurtling along as Peter tries to keep his friends safe, find Wolfe and determine who has employed him, and keep several arms of law enforcement at bay — not to mention wrangling his romantic relationship with Liza, one of his assistants, who has no clue about his real powers, and plumbing the dark secrets of his own past.
Swain brings all sorts of paranormal phenomena into play: visions of the past and future, ghosts, astral projection, mind-reading, channeling, possession, revenants, everything but Houdini's kitchen sink. One popular phenom is missing, though; as Peter tells Liza: "Vampires don't exist anymore. There were a few in Arizona, but they got wiped out."
Swain grounds all that in New York City's very real streets, as in a scene where a young witch uses her powers to turn a dogwalker's yapping charges into a savage pack of hounds to avert Wolfe's attack. For Dark Magic, leave your logic meter at home and enjoy the trip.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.