Friday, November 4, 2011

Death Plays Poker by Robin Spano, reviewed by Sherry Isaac

ECW Press, Oct 2011, trade paperback, 422 pages, $14.95

Every time you pick up a book by an author you’ve never read before, it’s a gamble, and gambling looms large in Death Plays Poker. The story plunges the reader, and the novel’s heroine, undercover cop Clare Vengel, into a poker tournament version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Death Plays Poker is not an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Rather, Spano deals a quirky hand full of twists and turns and and larger than life characters.

From Montreal to Niagara Falls, Toronto to Vancouver, the Poker Choker’s victims have two things in common: they are all strangled in their hotel rooms, and each one is connected to the poker circuit.

As heroine Clare Vengel tries to prove her worth in her second undercover assignment, Amanda, Clare’s handler, tells her, “Real people are complex.” And so are Spano’s characters. Her full house cast could easily be the envy of any soap opera writer, but Spano is careful not to show any character’s hand. Any one of the poker-faced players could be the murderer.

Short, third-person chapters give insight to each character without weighing down the quick pace of the light mystery read. As the players turn over their cards it is easy to turn over the pages. However, there is a downside. While the shifts are easy to follow, with so many points of view on the table, some readers may find it difficult to connect with the main character.

Motorcycle loving, Bud-drinking Clare second-guesses each move she makes as she impersonates her cover character, trust fund heiress Tiffany James. More of a card-guppy than a shark, I could have shared in Clare’s anguish, but while Clare felt awkward and full of self-doubt parading in Dolce & Gabbana, Spano pulled me into the world of high stakes poker with ease.

Suspects are eliminated as they become victims of the Poker Choker, and the plot is complicated by rumors of cheating. Lovers fold, enemies cash out, and the deck is stacked against Clare. While players are counting chips, Clare counts on her wit, and the help of a sexy FBI agent, to bluff the murderer into showing his hand. When the chips are down, Clare raises the stakes. Using her brains and her body she goes all-in to keep her cover from being blown, and keep a killer from striking again.

Death Plays Poker is available at bookstores, through all the usual on-line venues. Buy it from Chapters for just $11.36 here. For information about submitting to ECW Press, see here.

Sherry Isaac has published several pieces in Quick Brown Fox. You can read one of her short stories here and a previous book review here. She’s also been published in The New Mystery Reader and in Canadian Voices, Volume One. Her short story, “The Forgetting,” placed first in the Alice Munro Contest in 2009. Her first short story collection, Storyteller, was released this summer.

Quick Brown Fox welcomes book reviews, interviews with authors and other book-related articles. Guidelines here.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.


  1. It's hard to tell from your oblique style (and barrage of poker references), but you seem to be saying that this novel's not very good?

    If it takes place "From Montreal to Niagara Falls, Toronto to Vancouver", what is "a sexy FBI agent" (with no authority in Canada) doing in the middle of it?

    I'm also wondering why "Clare second-guesses each move she makes" when it's her who's making the moves? Doesn't she know her own mind?

  2. Not true, dear Anonymous. I enjoyed Death Plays Poker very much, and there is a good reason for every point in plot and characterization. Simply avoiding the spoilers.

  3. Whoah! Anonymous, I think you should read it again - it's obviously a favourable review - just not a good book if you're looking for a thriller. And all the poker rererences make it fun.

    -- Tara in Toronto

  4. "Whoah! Anonymous, I think you should read it again - it's obviously a favourable review - just not a good book if you're looking for a thriller."

    Isn't it supposed to be a thriller?

  5. "Isn't it supposed to be a thriller?"

    No. It sounds - and looks - more like a mystery

    -- Tara

  6. And thank you for the spam, Mr. Chopra!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.