Book Review: Michael Dirda on 'Even Money' by Dick and Felix Francis

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, August 27, 2009


By Dick Francis and Felix Francis

Putnam. 350 pp. $26.95

Sometimes, after a long time away, you revisit your old home town or college campus and discover that the favorite pizzeria of your highly caloric youth is still in business. Man, were those mushroom and pepperoni slices delicious! So, ignoring your cholesterol count, you order a large pizza, sit down with your favorite cold one and take a big mouthwatering bite.

And are, inevitably, disappointed.

No matter how good the pizza might be, it's no match for those pies of yesteryear. Some key ingredient seems to be missing, or the new owners have mucked about with the recipe, or maybe your own taste buds have grown more sophisticated. Nonetheless, you eat all eight slices anyway, and enjoy them. It's still pizza, after all.

Just so, one can say of "Even Money" that it may not be up to the standards of "Nerve" or "Forfeit" or "Whip Hand" or "Reflex," but it's still a Dick Francis thriller. The key elements are all here: the horseracing milieu, the damaged hero, various moral dilemmas, the easygoing first-person narration, at least one scene of brutal violence, the presentation of a lot of information about some romantically arcane subject (e.g., wine, investment banking, photography) and, of course, a more or less happy ending.

However, there's no getting around the fact that Dick Francis is nearly 90. He was born in 1920, piloted Spitfires during World War II for the Royal Air Force and spent the 1950s as one of Britain's leading jockeys, riding horses belonging to the Queen Mother. Only after his early retirement did he turn to writing fiction, starting with "Dead Cert" in 1962. But by producing a book a year up until 2000, Francis firmly established himself as a brand name, the purveyor of reliable, literate entertainment. In particular, his novels have always appealed to women -- and not only because of the horses in them, but also because his heroes are usually quietly attractive, sensitive men in their 30s burdened with guilt or otherwise psychologically wounded. The faint air of melancholy surrounding them adds an aura of almost Byronic romance.

Usually, these troubled Dick Francis heroes find themselves caught up in righting an injustice or solving a mystery that affects their lives or the lives of people they care about. In most of his 40 or so novels, Francis does without a recurring character, with one exception: Sid Halley -- a onetime jockey who has lost an arm -- becomes a private investigator in "Odds Against" and is the hero of three subsequent novels, including "Whip Hand" and "Come to Grief," both of which received Edgar awards for best mystery of the year.

Through most of his career, Francis relied on the help of his wife, Mary, who performed background research, provided a sounding board for possible plot developments and edited the final text. When she died, Francis stopped writing, apparently forever. But in 2005 he published a new Sid Halley novel called "Under Orders" and then in 2007 produced "Dead Heat," with the help of his younger son Felix. The two again collaborated on "Silks" last year and now again on "Even Money." Before joining his father in the family business, Felix Francis was an international-class marksman, the leader of expeditions to the Himalayas and the jungles of Borneo and a teacher of physics.

The hero of "Even Money" is Ned Talbot, a 37-year-old bookmaker who inherited his grandfather's business. As the novel opens on a depressing day at the Ascot race course, Ned has already suffered more than his share of life's troubles. His parents were killed when he was a baby; his beloved wife, Sophie, has had bipolar disorder diagnosed; his grandmother is gaga in a nursing home; and his electronics-whiz assistant, Luca Mandini, is thinking of quitting. What's more, Ned feels increasingly pressured by the large-scale betting agencies that would dearly love to put him out of business and acquire his pitch position at the tracks. So it's not surprising when the bookmaker, observing a happy couple, says to himself: "I supposed I must have been that happy once."

Well, this being a Francis novel, things have only just started to get rough for Ned Talbot. Before Chapter 1 ends, he will learn that his father is actually alive and involved with something deeply shady. By the end of Chapter 2, there will be an assault and a murder. And by the beginning of Chapter 6, Ned will discover a rucksack with a secret compartment tightly packed with 30,000 pounds in cash, a mysterious device that looks like a remote control, some counterfeit horse papers and "a small polythene bag containing what appeared at first to be ten grains of rice, but, on closer examination, were clearly man-made. They looked like frosted glass."

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