Book Talk: ‘A Gambling Man,’ another Baldacci gem

I, like many others who reviewed David Baldacci’s “One Good Deed,” suspected that Aloysius Archer, the protagonist, would be the key character in a new Baldacci series. No sooner had I filed my column than the second Archer book arrived at my door. Like the first book, “A Gambling Man” is set in post-World-War-II America. But Archer has traveled from Poca City where he was released from prison to Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World,” and then Las Vegas, where he hooks up with Liberty Callahan, a showgirl who has aspirations of becoming a movie star.


Archer is on his way to Bay City, CA, to become an apprentice private eye. After Callahan saves his life, he decides to give her a ride, at least most of the way to Hollywood. Because Archer has won a good sum of money by “not gambling” at craps and roulette, they travel in style in a 1939 Delahaye Model One Sixty-Five, Figoni and Falashi convertible cabriolet. (Do yourself a favor and Google this magnificent French-made automobile.)


Archer’s goal is to hook up with Willie Dash, Very Private Investigations, a former FBI agent who was recommended by Lieutenant Detective Irwin Shaw, back in Poca City. Although Liberty Callahan’s goal was to get to Hollywood and become a movie star, she forms a friendship, laced with a bit of sexual tension, with Archer and takes a job singing at a local nightclub.


Liberty is an immediate smash hit, but Archer has a lot to learn from Dash, and he needs to learn quickly because he finds himself in the middle of a case, the intricacies of which reminded me a bit of the 1974 movie “Chinatown,” starring Jack Nicholson. Specifically, Archer has to tread carefully as he investigates a case that involves power, politics, corruption, and a mysterious bit of family intrigue.


Bay City is run by a wealthy man, Sawyer Armstrong, whose son-in-law, Douglas Kemper, is running for mayor. But Armstrong is not only wealthy, he seems to own outright or have a financial interest in virtually everything that has value. Archer becomes involved with the family when Kemper comes to him for help because he’s being blackmailed.


Just when the reader begins to wonder if Archer is a kind of superman, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, he is soundly beaten by Armstrong’s strong-arm henchmen Hank and Tony. But Liberty sticks with Archer through thick and thin. P.I. Willie Dash seems to have an advisory role, at least until he shows up with a machine gun that he claims to have taken “from Ma Barker’s cold, dead hands.” Still, it’s wonderful to listen to Archer and Dash sift through clues together and formulate hypotheses.


Like the first book in this new Baldacci series, A Gambling Man takes us back to a time that most people will recognize through the novels by Ross McDonald, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler.


Enjoy.


‘Master Mind,’ Jessica v. Warlock


Imagine this: All of a sudden, everything comes to a stop in New York City, electric power is lost, and a black cloud covers the island. There’s no indication of an explosion or terrorist attack. It’s as if the Big Apple has simply vanished from the earth. And it may be the greatest magic trick that’s ever been pulled off.


In the most recent Jessica Blackwood thriller (“Master Mind,” 2021, 318 pages), author Andrew Mayne pairs magician-turned-FBI-agent Jessica with Dr. Theo Cray, a brilliant scientist whom she first has to rescue from imprisonment in the jungles of Myanmar. He was in a remote village, vaccinating people, when the army stomped in. As Jessica leads him back to civilization, he stops to help an injured person, and that singular act impresses the FBI agent who has had trouble trying to figure out what is going on in the mind of the genius.


Soon, other cities around the world begin to experience the same phenomenon that hit New Yorkers. Jessica would believe that this is more mischief that is perpetrated by The Warlock, except that he is in federal custody. Or, at least he was until he escaped during a prison transfer. And not only does he have a score to settle with Jessica, but he’s also obsessed with Dr. Cray.


Dr. Theo Cray is the protagonist in four books of another Mayne series: “The Naturalist,” “Looking Glass,” “Murder Theory,” and “Dark Pattern.” I would have enjoyed this book more if I had read that “The Naturalist Series” first. Cray is an interesting study, but — if he weren’t partner with Jessica in the current book — he would seem to be somewhat ineffectual.


Moreover, with two principal characters in “Master Mind,” it’s often a bit confusing as to the POV (point of view) from which each chapter is told. Because the writing style doesn’t change, I was often two or three pages into a chapter before I realized whether the narrator was Jessica or Theo.


Still, with these caveats aside, this is an exciting plot. For example, Mayne takes the reader on one of the most exciting helicopter rides imaginable. Then, in addition to international cities “disappearing” into the “Void,” as the black cloud is called, 30 chimpanzees disappear from a zoo in Thailand. With heart-pounding tension, we learn that we don’t ever want to be around a bunch of killer apes when they are hungry.


Then, there are reports of zombie-like people terrorizing residents close to Chernobyl, and a “road trip” takes Jessica and Theo to a data facility in Ukraine, where we finally get a hint about what Warlock is really doing. His agenda is even more terrifying than anything that either Jessica or Theo could have imagined.


Andrew Mayne takes a page from the “Author’s Handbook” and writes about what he knows. The Jessica Blackwell series combines his knowledge as a professional magician with his association with OpenAI, an organization that has been established to ensure that artificial intelligence benefits all of humanity.


If you’d like to try Mayne’s Jessica-Blackwell Series, I strongly suggest that you read the books in order: “Angel Killer,” “The Name of the Devil,” “Black Fall,” and “Master Mind.”


Enjoy!


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Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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