By Dick and Felix Francis
Putnam, $26.95, 368 pages
REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY
"Even Money" is the third collaboration between long time mystery writer Dick Francis and his son Felix. It contains all the elements that have made the Francis franchise so successful since Dick Francis' first, "Dead Cert," was published in 1962.
The work of Dick Francis is found on book store mystery shelves, and he's won every prize and distinction in this field. But his deft handling of theme, character and setting makes him far more than a genre writer.
Francis heroes have different names though one, Sid Haley, has appeared in three of Mr. Francis' now 43 novels but they're essentially the same guy: a smart, honest, mentally and physically tough, courageous guy in his 30s who can stand up to the evil some really tough and determined bad guys throw at him. It's amateur hour in most of Mr. Francis'novels because his hero almost always deals with the mystery and the threat himself rather than calling in the police.
Firmly in the British tradition, the plots in Mr. Francis' novels are complex, featuring many twists, turns, and surprises. "Money" is no exception to this. But his writing style is not as ornate as that of many British mystery writers. His stories are fast-moving, his prose lean and insistent. The opposite end of the scale from P.D. James in this regard, though these two are both exceptional storytellers.
All of Mr. Francis' 43 novels, many of which have been bestsellers, have something to do with the world of British horse racing, a world the former championship jockey knows intimately. In "Money," the hero, Ned Talbot, is a third-generation bookie, a legal occupation in Britain though not a respected one. Talbot is what some British punters would claim is an exception, an honest bookmaker.
In addition to the world of horse racing, Dick Francis characters treat readers to an inside look at various worlds, thanks largely to research done by Mr. Francis' wife, Mary, before her death in 2000 and continued by son Felix. The world in "Silks," the most recent novel before "Money," was the law. Readers learn about politics in "10lb Penalty," about life in the diplomatic corps and veterinary medicine in "Comeback," movie-making in "Wild Horses" and glass-blowing in "Shattered."
As "Money" opens, Ned Talbot is working his booth at the Royal Ascot, the world's most famous horse race, when an old gent asks to meet with him after the races. At this meeting Talbot learns that the old gent is his father, whom Talbot thought had died in a car crash when Talbot was an infant.
In his only interview with his father, Dad is pretty cagey about his past and what he's spent his absent years doing. We learn through the novel that Dad had much to be cagey about.
Talbot is barely used to the idea that he may have a live father on his hands and two half-sisters he's never known of in Australia, when he and his father are attacked in the race-track car park and his father is killed. In short order Talbot learns that there was nothing ordinary in what appeared to be an ordinary robbery. And even more shocking, the father who he has just reunited with and then lost is the prime suspect in the murder of Ned Talbot's mother.
As he lies dying in the car park, Dad's last words to his son are, "Be very careful … of everyone." This turns out to be good advice.
It gets even more complicated when we find that Dad was traveling under a series of names and passports and is involved in some high-level racing fraud that attracts some very bad guy to Ned, who knows a lot less about Dad's business than the bad guys think.
Talbot is whipsawed between the bad guys and a detective chief inspector who believes all bookies are scoundrels and that Talbot has to be dirty in some way. With nothing but threats and danger from both the cops and the robbers, Talbot has to safeguard his life and his freedom on his own, while at the same time protecting a mentally ill wife that he loves.
"Even Money" is a satisfying Francis thriller that will keep readers guessing until the end. Nothing and no one is quite what it seems to begin with, so Talbot must call on all of his reserves of courage and ingenuity to face the evil that tests him to the limit.
In addition to being a compelling mystery and thriller, "Even Money" also gives readers an inside look at the sometimes dodgy business of bookmaking, where all the players are constantly trying to get an edge on each other. Most in this business don't trust their colleagues any farther than they could throw the winner of the last race. "Even Money" will show readers why they don't.
• Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.