Picks and Pans Review: Hot Money

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Dick Francis

"I intensely disliked my father's fifth wife, but not to the point of murder." That classic of a mystery novel first sentence is just the beginning of the pleasures in this sometimes ruthless, sometimes sentimental tale of murder and greed in a large, rich, hopelessly awry English family. Francis, in his 26th novel, adroitly mixes his whodunit plot with a subtext involving a grown son finally coming to know his father. Malcolm Pembroke is an aging gold speculator who has had five wives, the latest a recent victim of having her head planted in a sack of potting soil until she suffocated. Pembroke has had nine children. One son died in a hit-and-run auto crash that also left his twin with irreversible brain damage and killed their mother; six of the other children spend much of their time wondering when they will come into their inheritance. When the old boy survives two attempts on his life, it becomes clear that one or more of the offspring may be trying to hurry the whole process along. The ninth child, Ian, is this novel's hero and narrator. He is 33, a horse trainer and amateur jockey and a generally idle chap who has a mildly satisfying, chronic dalliance with a married lady. Estranged from his father by a disagreement over the merits of the late fifth Mrs. Pembroke, Ian is called in by Malcolm as a bodyguard because he hasn't shown much interest in the family fortune. As the two simultaneously try to avoid the killer and solve the mystery, they also develop a new understanding. Francis lets Ian seem too expert at the amateur detective business; when he leaves a house he sets the interior doors at precise angles so he'll know later if they have been disturbed. Ian also lapses into Charlie Chanish aphorisms. Warning his half-brother and sister-in-law that an argument might recur, he says, "When the firemen have gone, fires often start again from the heat in the embers." Francis, an ex-jockey, has a sense of pace that would be the envy of most of his former colleagues. In addition to keeping the solution to the case nicely contained until the end, he throws in a doozy of a bonus surprise. He never seems compelled to write as if he were competing with Tolstoy, and he has struck up a mutually satisfying, respectful relationship with his readers. It's not unlike the one between Ian and his mistress—"We suited each other well: perfectly happy in ephemeral passion." (Putnam's, $17.95)

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