Writing King of Swords
Tarot for Beginners
Miami – Murder Capital USA:
King of Swords is a love story of sorts, a paean to Miami, my favourite American city.
I’d been going there, fairly regularly, since 1979. My mum and I used to stay overnight on our way to Haiti from England, to catch the connecting flight in the morning. We had family in Miami, so our transit stays got longer. Two days turned to a week. A week turned into two.
My older cousins used to take me to South Beach, a very different place to the affluent, glitzy, hedonistic hub it is today. Back then it was one part retirement home, one part slum, one part sun-baked sewer. The art deco hotels along Ocean Drive were where Jewish retirees from the New York garment district came to live out their last days on a tight budget. The old ladies used to sit in deckchairs in Lummus Park and cook pots of borscht on portable gas stoves, while their panama hatted, Hawaiian shirted husbands would doze off, play cards, or reminisce with their friends. The Collins Avenue strip was a semi-deserted fossil of fissured, boarded up beach front hotels, squatted by tramps or newly arrived Cuban immigrants. As for Lincoln Road … well, we were all told not to go down there.
Unbeknown to me then, Miami in the early 1980s was the backdrop for a vicious turf war between rival Latin American cocaine gangs. Death visited the city so often that to locals the sight of bullet-riddled bodies lying in the street was no big deal. In fact, there were so many casualties in the cocaine war that one year the city ran out of morgue space and had to rent vans from Burger King to store the corpses.
This was the Miami of Scarface and Miami Vice. And it’s the Miami of King of Swords.
The King of Swords is a tarot card denoting either someone of authority and power, or someone tyrannical, manipulative and abusive. This interpretation depends on where the card turns up in a reading, and whether it’s the right way up or reversed. When tarot cards are the right way, their meaning is positive, or, in the case of a negative card, not as bad as they appear. When the cards are reversed, they’re bad news. In the book the card refers to a character who embodies both positive abd negative traits.
Tarot cards feature very significantly in the book. A shredded, partially digested card is found in a murder victim’s stomach, and sets the detectives (Max Mingus, then a younger man, and his partner and friend Joe Liston) off on a nightmarish investigation which talks them deep into the heart of the Haitian expat underworld and face to face with a sinister gang leader, Solomon Boukman. Boukman uses black magic and gangster shamanism to hold sway over his organization, named after Baron Samedi - the voodoo god of death – commonly depicted as a chain-smoking, rum-swilling skeleton dressed in top hat and tails.
The Pimp and His Mother:
Two of the book’s main villains are a scheming pimp, Carmine, and his tarot card reading mother, Eva.
Unbeknown to the outside world, they’re locked in an abusive relationship. Carmine fears his mother, who washes him in the bath, like she would a child, and constantly belittles him by taunting his inadequacies and occasionally beating him.
Carmine’s world and the illusion he maintains of being the big man on the block, with his flash car and flashier retinue of women, starts to fall apart when he’s beaten up and robbed by one of his girls.
I started King of Swords in 2005 and finished it ‘on location’ on Miami Beach in March 2007, notebook in lap, feet in the sand, facing the sea, drinking Cuban coffee and smoking cigarettes for the very last time.
The book’s conclusion, the description of the beach at sunset, with the last sunbathers walking off and the seagulls circling the rubbish strewn beach was literally what was I was watching.
Miami, by then was a completely different place to the one I’d first visited in the 70s and 80s. Despite its spruced up image and glamour, it still retained its edge, its specious seediness, its patina of death, its power to scare.
I made some good friends there – Mitch Kaplan at Books & Books, Chauncey Mabe, Ellen and Benjamin Kanner, and the great Darrell Davis and his daughter Lynette.
A word about Darrell. I met him working behind the counter of a bookshop in Liberty City, one of the city’s two African-American neighbourhoods. We became friends fast. He’d lived in Liberty City and gave me a couple of tours. He christened them “Upside” and “Downside”; or highpoints and lowpoints. One thing I’ll never ever forget are the remains of the ironically named “Liberty Wall” - a four foot tall wall built in the 1930s to segregate black and white people. It was torn down in the late 1950s, but its remains are still clearly visible, like a scar.
I had a blast writing King of Swords. I was aided and abetted by my great editor Bev Cousins, who was a constant source of inspiration and encouragement, helping me unravel the knots of the plot, and pushing me to greater heights. Some people have chemistry, we had alchemy. Pound for pound, Bev remains one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever worked with.
NS – London 2014