Sunday, January 20, 2019

Two Brothers Find Themselves in the Crosshairs of Some Very Bad People in This Novel from Dick Francis

Twice Shy is a somewhat unusual novel. As a practical matter, it really consists of two short novels that share a pair of villains but which have different main protagonists. The two stories are set fourteen years apart, and the first is set in the early 1980s. The lead character here is Jonathan Derry, a young physics teacher who is also a crack shot who once had hopes of competing in the Olympics. 

Jonathan is trapped in a loveless marriage that is failing because his wife desperately wants to have children but is unable to do so. He's at loose ends when a friend gives him three cassette tapes. But instead of the music he expects to find, he discovers that the cassettes contain computer programs. The programs constitute a horse betting system that, when used properly, could make a person a fortune.

The first part of the book is obviously set in the very early days of personal computing when PCs had very little internal memory and when even the operating system had to be loaded into the computer before you could use it. Francis spends a great deal of time explaining all of this, but it's all very dated. I imagine this was fascinating, at least to some people, when the book was first published in 1982, but thirty-seven years later, it tends to take the reader out of the story, at least a bit.

Once Derry comes into possession of the tapes, he finds himself in considerable danger because some ruthless and unscrupulous people know about the tapes and want them for themselves. Some bad things happen and then fourteen years pass out of the sight of the reader. When the story resumes, our new lead is Jonathan's younger brother, William Derry, a horse trainer. It turns out that the nasty people from the first half of the book are still hot on the trail of the computer tapes and now William is in their sights. More bad things will happen and the question is whether either of the Derry brothers can survive.

Even leaving aside the business about the outdated computers, this is not one of my favorite Dick Francis novels. It's serviceable enough, but neither the plot nor the characters seemed up to Francis's usual standards, and the idea that the bad guys would still be on the hunt for these computer tapes fourteen years down the road seemed a stretch. Given the advances in computers over that period of time, one would certainly think that the system contained on the tapes would be obsolete, assuming that you could even still find a computer to run them on, and I had trouble buying into the characters' motivations. An okay read, but not a great one.

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