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Book review: Haiti is the setting for magical new thriller

An ex-cop fresh out of prison is hired to find a billionaire's kidnapped son. Sounds like pretty ordinary stuff, right?

You would think so, except there's nothing ordinary about Nick Stone's debut novel, Mr. Clarinet.

Private investigator Max Mingus is at the end of his rope. He's an ex-Miami cop who has just emerged from a New York prison for taking the law into his own hands, and he's mourning the death of his wife.

The lure of $10 million to find a boy who's been missing in Haiti for two years is too tough to turn down.

Set in the mid-1990s, Stone's Haiti is what sets this thriller apart from any other I've read this year.

The island nation which shares its border with the Dominican Republic is saturated with mysterious voodoo culture and black magic. The country is still reeling from the likes of the notorious dictator Papa Doc and his predecessors. The streets are crawling with UN peacekeepers and penniless natives. And to top it all off, the disappearance of scores of children every year is blamed on the mythical Mr. Clarinet, a Pied Piper who steals their souls.

Somehow in this mess, Max has to find Charlie Carver. He figures he'll find him one way or the other, dead or alive. He's always found his targets before. And if he meets his end like three PI's before him? So what, he's lost his reason to live.

Although Stone was born in England, his mother has deep Haitian roots, and his father is historian Norman Stone. Nick spent time in Haiti as a child and visited throughout his formative years. And it shows in his writing.

From zombie potions to seances to voodoo ritual orgies, with Stone's touch, Mr. Clarinet oozes authenticity. And that's one of the hardest things to pull off for a first-time novelist. It's no wonder the book is up for several awards, winning the Crime Writers Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2006 (Mr. Clarinet was first released last year in Great Britain) and the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel 2007.

Check out Max's state of mind after participating in a seance he had hoped would turn up clues:

"Max believed in life and death. He didn't believe life crossed over into death, although he did believe that some people could be dead inside and appear to be living on the outside. Most lifers and long-timers he'd seen in prison were like that. He was pretty much that way too, a corpse wrapped in living tissue, fooling everyone but himself."

Max Mingus is a rather tragic figure, true to the hard-boiled fiction tradition, similar to C.W. Sughrue in James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss. He's willing to do whatever it takes to save Charlie and salvage his lost innocence, and maybe along the way he'll find out that life is worth living. Mr. Clarinet spins its wheels a little in the middle, but Stone throws in enough bends in the trail to make it worth the journey.

Contact Bob Cunningham at: bcunningham@theblade.com or 419-724-6527

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