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THE DARKNESS OF THE SUNSHINE STATE

Before writing The Night Monster, author James Swain researched child abduction. It's a subject whose file continues to grow.

Alot of the material in James Swain's new thriller The Night Monster is drawn from the headlines. But this may be the first time a book of his has anticipated - almost eerily - a real crime.

"It hasn't hurt (the book) that this situation out in California happened," Swain said by phone from his home in Odessa.

"This situation" is the case of Jaycee Dugard, the young woman who was abducted at age 11 and held for 18 years, police say, by convicted rapist Phillip Garrido. She was found alive last month.

The Night Monster opens with the abduction of a college student, Naomi Dunn, from her apartment by a gigantic man. Swain's series character, Jack Carpenter (he's also the protagonist of The Night Stalker and Midnight Rambler), then a young Fort Lauderdale cop, tries to stop the giant and is nearly killed for his trouble.

Eighteen years later, Naomi Dunn has never been found, and Carpenter, now a private investigator specializing in child abductions, is still looking for her when another young woman, a friend of his daughter's, is kidnapped by what may be the same man.

Swain says that although the Dugard case is shocking, it doesn't surprise him. He has been intensively researching the field of abduction for five years, ever since his mother died.

"I discovered after my mom's death that she was a victim of parental abduction as a child," being held for about two years.

That led him to research who commits such crimes, why and how - and how the victims are affected. "If you can find the child quickly enough, the damage is limited," he says.

But victims who are held for long periods don't fare as well. "I saw it with my mom. The studies show about 85 percent of them suffer from depression and other psychological problems as adults. I think that statistic is wrong. I think it's 100 percent."

His interest in the subject led him to write three novels about Carpenter, a former missing persons detective (kicked off the force for beating a suspect) who now helps parents and, under the radar, his old colleagues to find missing kids.

"Carpenter can do things the police can't," Swain says. "A law enforcement officer pointed out to me that Jack was an avenging angel. He's more interested in justice than the law."

Before the Carpenter books, Swain published seven novels about another series character, casino-scam expert Tony Valentine, whom he brings back for "a cameo" in The Night Monster. Swain says he has also signed an agreement with a Hollywood studio to develop the Valentine books, about which he's "cautiously optimistic."

Profiling victims

Swain says when he heard about the Dugard case, "I said to my wife, he's done this before.

"It was obvious to me. Now we hear there was another girl who disappeared in '88 who looked like Jaycee's sister. He was profiling them, looking for a specific type. The people who profile their victims usually keep them," unlike serial killers, who are opportunistic and tend to choose victims randomly: "If they can't kill this prostitute, they'll kill the next one."

The Night Monster focuses on a series of abductions of young women of similar appearance at roughly regular intervals. "When these guys have what they want, they aren't harming anybody else," Swain says, but when a victim dies or escapes they go hunting for a new one - like the man Carpenter chases in the novel.

Another source for The Night Monster was the disappearance of Tiffany Sessions in 1989. The 20-year-old University of Florida student went jogging in Gainesville one evening and vanished. "About every four years, a girl disappears in Florida who looks just like Tiffany Sessions," Swain says. "There was one about a year ago in Central Florida."

Florida is notorious for its crime, especially bizarre crimes. "People from outside the state read my books and say, 'Could this really happen?' I just tell them to read the papers."

That provides lots of material for Swain, and for writers like Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey. "Tim and Carl tap into it for humor, but I do something different," Swain says. "To me this stuff is shuddersome."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Meet the author

James Swain will talk about and sign his new novel at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble Carrollwood, 11802 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; at 3 p.m. Saturday at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; and at 2 p.m. Sept. 26 at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

Festival author

James Swain will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24 on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; go to festivalofreading.com.

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