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A good little book about murder, gambling, corruption and taking on the big guys. What's not to like?
Even Money by Dick and Felix Francis seems to me to be the crime equivalent of a trashy chick lit novel; the ones where our heroine struggles to find love while confiding in her male 'best friend' before, in the final chapter, realising he's the one. The writing's very simple, you can easily get through the 400 odd pages in less than a day, and the depth of story isn't exactly on a par with War and Peace but this book still delivers a highly entertaining read.
There are many good things about this book. I knew very little about gambling before picking up this book and a lot of information about the background working of bookmakers is provided, without anything becoming too technical. This aspect certainly adds an extra dimension and a small subplot to the book which if I'm being completely honest is probably required to make up for the lack of character development and depth elsewhere. Otherwise, this book could have been half the length and, given the ease of reading, be found in the teen fiction section of the bookshop. The start of the book is good, opening with a good deal of mystery and intrigue which will keep you reading once you have started.
There is some bad though. The character names seem almost like placeholders for a later addition ('Erm what shall I call the Irish dude? Oh Paddy Murphy will do for now') that were never replaced and a reasonable amount of the story is also dumped into the epilogue which is pretty annoying.
Overall an enjoyable read but don't come into it looking for anything spectacular. I read it whilst lying on a beach and I think this probably the best way to enjoy it: dipping into and out of the simple storyline before chucking it in your suitcase and forgetting about it.
by Dick Francis and Felix Francis
Published by Penguin 2009 (Hardcover) 2010 (Paperback)
Prior to reading this book, the only thing I knew about horse racing was that during every summer of my childhood the BBC used to use it to interrupt the Test cricket coverage at critical times. You could guarantee that during that fifteen minute break for "Racing at Aintree" an important wicket would fall, a batsman would reach a hundred, or occasionally a match might even finish. As a huge cricket fan, this instilled in me a hatred for horse racing that extends to the present day.
However, having mellowed with age, when a friend gave me Even Money by Dick Francis and Felix Francis as a birthday present, I was prepared to give it a go.
The late Dick Francis is, of course, a former champion jockey who rode for the Queen Mother and is most famous for being the unfortunate jockey who was leading on the final straight of the 1956 Grand National only for his horse, Devon Loch, to appear to try and jump an imaginary fence, allowing the rest of the field to overtake it. Most people have at some point seen the footage, most likely on a sports bloopers program, but few will realize that the world's most famous horse racing-themed crime writer was actually the jockey. No, neither did I.
After retiring from racing, Francis was encouraged to write his autobiography, The Sport of Kings (1957). After becoming a racing correspondent for the Sunday Express, Francis published his first novel, Dead Cert, in 1962, and would go on to be one of the world's most famous crime writers, with all of his novels set against a background of horse racing.
Even Money was published in 2009, a year before Francis died at the age of 89. There are many rumours across the net that his novels were in fact ghost written by his wife, Mary, who died in 2000. Following her death, Francis reemerged in 2006 with Under Orders, and every novel since has carried his son Felix Francis (also his manager) as part of the byline, suggesting that his son now ghost writes his books.
Even Money tells the story of Ned Talbot, a small time bookmaker, who is confronted by a man who claims to be the father whom Ned thought had died when he was a child. Within hours, his newfound father is dead, stabbed in the race course parking lot by a mysterious stranger, and Ned begins an investigation into the circumstances behind his father's faked death and subsequent return.
What I liked
I've only been into a bookmakers shop once in my life (I won 40 pounds at 40-1 for Rio Ferdinand to be first scorer in a football game in the 2002 World Cup!) and know next to nothing about it. I didn't even know there were small timers who worked on site at race courses. This novel gives a lot of background into the industry, none of which I had known before. For example, if a bookmaker takes a large sum of money on a particular outcome, they will place their own bets against the opposite result at other bookmakers, in order to even out their potential losses. It's all pretty fascinating stuff and kept my interest long after my interest in the actual story had begun to wane.
I love a good mystery. The book starts well, with the mystery of Ned's father, the scary guys trying to kill him, the strange items he finds in his father's rucksack, and the fake passports.
And it was very easy to read. The writing style is so simplistic (more on that later) that you can tear through twenty pages in a single toilet sitting.
What I didn't like
After a promising beginning, the plot tails off into mediocrity. There are some clever parts, such as Ned's plot to get back at the bookmaker who tries to ruin his business, but all too much of it is just potboiler by numbers.
The writing too, while functional, is flat. The prose is very, very basic which works well for matter-of-fact situations but whenever something with action happens it comes across as very sixth-form (the car chase near the end is one particular example). The problem is (and you can see my review of Colin Forbes's The Vorpal Blade (currently only on ciao) for a similar assessment) that with big name writers who have an existing fanbase, publishers pretty much stop pushing themselves. They know that whatever they put out with Dick Francis's name on the cover will sell a million or two so they don't worry about stretching any boundaries. I can almost guarantee though that if I were to photocopy it and sent it out to an agent under my own name (which I won't, of course!) it would get rejected for a variety of reasons.
The characters, for example. The three bad guys (sorry if this is a spoiler!) are called John Smith, Paddy Murphy, and Kipper. Can you guess which one is Irish? Okay, so they are pretend names or nicknames, but even so, come on. Make a bit of effort.
And way too much is left until the epilogue to be resolved, in a "and as it turned out ..." kind of way. The epilogue is some twenty pages long, which tells (almost literally) its own story.
Don't get me wrong, I liked this book. It was significantly better than the aforementioned Colin Forbes effort, for which, really, an editor should have been fired. At least Even Money followed a linear path without characters conveniently forgetting important facts that would prove crucial to the story. It's just that it is obviously a twilight years novel by a writer some way past his best. I enjoyed what I learned from it about bookmaking and horse racing, but not really the story. On a certain level it frustrates to see "New York Times Bestseller" written on the cover when I can and have written better novels that have never got further than a literary agent's slush pile. I guess that's just what legacy does for you.