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Crime is personal in James Swain’s ‘Bad News Travels’

An FBI agent and an ex-Navy SEAL pursue a case on the nightmare side of sleepy St. Augustine.

Many people think of words like quaint and quiet when they think of St. Augustine. James Swain takes readers on a fast-paced tour of a very different side of that city in his new novel, Bad News Travels.

FBI agent Beth Daniels arrives in St. Augustine to attend her father’s funeral. Before they even make it into the church, her boyfriend, Jon Lancaster, starts to think something is wrong with the official narrative of Martin Daniels' demise.

Lancaster is not your ordinary boyfriend. A former police detective and before that a Navy SEAL, he’s now a private investigator who often works with Team Adam, an anti-abduction task force. He has an unusual skill set; even the fact that he’s short and pot-bellied and looks unthreatening is something he turns to his advantage.

Swain has written more than 20 books; this is his third thriller featuring Lancaster and Daniels. He introduced them to readers and to each other in The King Tides in 2018, then brought them to the Tampa Bay area for a case in No Good Deed last year.

Related: Read a review of James Swain's "The King Tides"

The pair started out strictly business, working together to rescue Daniels' niece, Nicki, from abductors in The King Tides. Now they’re lovers as well as sometime working partners, a situation that has gotten Daniels in trouble with her FBI bosses, since Lancaster often bends the rules.

Work is not front of mind, though, as Daniels tries to process her father’s death. Martin Daniels retired to St. Augustine after a long and distinguished career as a surgeon and professor. His retirement was busy, his attitude and health good, his friends many, so she’s stunned when the police tell her and her sister that he killed himself.

To Daniels, it seems completely out of character. Lancaster hadn’t met her father, but he finds the suicide conclusion suspect as well, for a variety of reasons. One is Martin’s packed refrigerator. Lancaster finds a Publix receipt for a large shopping haul dated the day of the suicide and wonders, “Why would Martin buy groceries, come home, put them in the fridge, then drive to the park and kill himself?”

Alarming evidence piles up fast: Martin had added a secret wall safe and a panic room to his home, and his bank account has been drained of $1.2 million. A former girlfriend of Martin’s says that he had an addiction to pornography that was so out of control it led to him leaving the board of a local hospital. Others confirm the porn problem, but Lancaster finds no evidence of it on the man’s computers.

Soon a couple of Russian gangsters, whom Lancaster had spotted outside the funeral, show up with threats. They’re associates of a beautiful young woman named Katya, who might have been in a relationship with Martin. Katya works at a museum in town whose collection included several mummified hands. The hands were recently stolen; one is found in Martin’s house, and others have been left on the doorsteps of some of his friends.

The local police do not make a good impression on Daniels and Lancaster. After their first meeting with Detective Gaylord Sykes, who led the investigation of Martin’s death, Daniels is furious. Trained by the FBI in interrogation techniques that include how to detect whether someone is telling the truth, she rages, “That son of a bitch is lying.” She and Lancaster will have to pursue answers on their own.

Swain moves the story along at a breathless pace while keeping readers abreast of the details of the pair’s investigative procedures. He also pays attention to the unusual dynamics of their relationship, which has many layers and some interesting surprises.

Bad News Travels is a wild, well-crafted ride that accelerates to a stunning and satisfying twist.

[ Thomas & Mercer ]

Bad News Travels

By James Swain

Thomas & Mercer, 351 pages, $15.95

Times Festival of Reading

James Swain will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14. If you have a question for Swain, email it with the subject line “Festival author question” to cbancroft@tampabay.com.

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