Even Money, the third collaboration between Dick Francis and his son Felix in the last three years, is another in the long line of Dick Francis horse track mysteries, and it is a good one. Longtime fans of Dick Francis might react differently to Even Money, of course, believing that it suffers in comparison to the author’s earlier work. I, on the other hand, having only ever read one other Dick Francis novel, and that many years ago, experienced Even Money more as a standalone novel. And as such, I enjoyed it.
Ned Talbot is thirty-seven years old and has been a bookmaker all his life, having inherited the family business from his grandfather, Teddy Talbot. In fact, when Ned sets himself up to do business at various tracks, the board above his head still says “Trust Teddy Talbot” on it. With the help of Luca, a computer whiz who accepts and manages each day’s bets, Ned makes a decent living for himself and Sophie, his mentally fragile wife. He may be doing quite well but Ned thinks often about how bookmakers are despised by most everyone in the racing world, even those who make their own livings from the services he and his fellow bookies provide.
Ascot is not one of Ned’s favorite racetracks and, in fact, he seldom enjoys setting up shop there. But because his grandfather had considered participation at Ascot to be one of the firm’s best marketing techniques, Ned and Luca are there hoping to make the best of things. What Ned does not bargain for is the stranger who approaches him at the end of the day to claim that he is Ned’s father, a man Ned had thought dead for thirty-six years. Just one hour later, as Ned and Peter Talbot make their way to Ned’s car, they are assaulted by a knife-wielding thug and Ned begins a frantic race of his own, one he has to win if he is to stay alive.
It is relatively common for bookies to be robbed of their day’s earnings before they leave the track, but Ned senses that what happened to him and his father is no ordinary mugging. What he discovers in his father’s rucksack (30,000 pounds in cash, counterfeit horse passports, an electronic device that reminds him of a television remote, and ten little devices each the size of a grain of rice) confirms for Ned that his father was specifically targeted by the man who attacked them. Now he wants to know why.
Even before the sudden appearance of his father, Ned has a lot going on in his world. Sophie is bipolar and her illness has gotten so bad that she has again been institutionalized for treatment; Luca is threatening to quit the firm unless Ned makes him a full partner; and the grandmother who raised him is suffering from dementia and living in a nursing home. Via these subplots, the reader comes to see Ned Talbot as a real human being who has managed to get himself in way over his head - and that is half the fun of Even Money.
I particularly enjoyed the novel’s details of how the world of bookmaking works, how odds are set, how bookies cover themselves with side bets of their own (a bit like insurance companies cover themselves by reinsuring their risk through other companies), and how they view themselves and those with whom they do business. I have not been a fan of this type of novel in the past but that little bit of “inside information” makes it more likely that I will seek out other Dick Francis novels now.
Rated at: 4.0
(Advance Reader Copy provided by G.P. Putnam's Sons)