“Even Money,” by former champion steeple chase jockey Dick Francis and his son, Felix, takes us behind the scenes of a smalltime legal bookie’s business in England. Ned Talbot is working his spot at Royal Ascot when an older man approaches and wants to chat about Ned’s grandfather, the man who started the family operation many years before. Hardly the time for a conversation, Ned puts him off until later in the day, annoyed by the intrusion.
Three hours later, after revealing that he is the father Ned thought died long ago in a car crash, the man is mortally stabbed in front of Ned in the track parking lot, by an attacker who keeps asking where his money is. With the “Be very careful of everyone” warning on the father’s dying breath, “Easy Money” is off and running.
Why was he stabbed? What money? Was the man really his father? If so, where had he been for the last thirty-six years? Anger and frustration and grief hit full force as Ned tries to sort it all out. When a stranger breaks into Ned’s house looking for his father’s property, Ned knows that whatever else, his father was up to no good before he died.
The police discover that his father had traveled from Australia under a different name, and of course, don’t quite believe Ned’s version of the mugging. Ned must deal with the death, the police and the questions he has, all while working to have his wife released from a mental institution. Pressured at every turn, Ned must even fend off thugs from a betting syndicate that is trying to force out smalltime bookies.
What unfolds is a multi-layered mystery set against the background of horseracing, with an emphasis on the betting. The Francis team has the task of explaining how betting works for both the punter (the person who places the bet) and the bookie. They describe the process simply enough so that the average reader can follow that particular storyline. A bookmaker’s odds chart is provided at the beginning of the book, but while interesting, it is not essential to understanding the action. A note: the British system of betting is a bit less controlled than the U.S. system, with more leeway for placing and paying out bets.
The racing world in “Even Money” has arrived at modern day, with internet betting, computerized betting stubs, RFID chips for horse identification, horse passports, wi-fi and cell phones.
We learn of the latest schemes to switch good and bad horses just before a race – long gone are the days when a horse could be painted and passed off as a different mount. International racing comes into play as some of his father’s secrets are revealed.
Ned Talbot seems tough enough and clever enough to cope with all the complications that pop up as he solves the several puzzles and deals with horrible truths about his father. Ned is not a super hero James Bond type, though; his handling of the many twists and turns seem possible even for the common guy. And that’s why we root for him. We can see ourselves in the same tight spots and know with a little luck and quick thinking that we could be masters of our own fates, too.
He has able assistants at the track and I especially liked Luca and Duggie. They seem perfectly suited for the technical know-how and showmanship needed in the book. The bad guys are interesting and vary according to their level of motivation in the story and what they want from Ned. The payback scheme at the end is terrific and worthy of a heist movie.
Among other awards, Dick Francis was a three-time winner of the Edgar Award, bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America. He wrote forty-three bestselling novels and was widely considered to be one of the best thriller writers in the world.
“Even Money” was published in 2009 and was the third of four novels co-written by Dick and Felix Francis. Dick Francis passed away in early 2010 and the fourth book was published later that year. For more information about Dick Francis and his career, as well as Felix and how he is carrying on the family business, please visit www.felixfrancis.com