Reviewed: February 14, 2003
By: Dick Francis
Publisher: Pan Books
405 Pages, $7.99
Lots of mystery stories have that ďhappy ever afterĒ sort of
ending, where everything works out just fine and there are no repercussions.
While Twice Shy eventually gets to something like that sort of ending,
it takes its time getting there - about 14 years worth of time.
The story begins with Jonathan Derry, sometime in the late 1970s
or early 80s. I say that because the McGuffin in this story is a computer
program encoded on a cassette tape, and you know how long itís been since
that sort of thing was used to store programs.
The program falls, quite by accident, into the hands of Derry,
who is a high school physics teacher with a marriage going sour. It comes
to him by way of an old friend who dies, or is perhaps killed, shortly thereafter.
It seems that Peter had been working on a little programming project for
someone and that the whole thing had gotten nasty.
The reason for that is that the program had encoded the rudiments
of an old track betterís system for picking winners. It was a system so successful
that the old man and his wife had been able to live their lives on it, once
he worked it out. His reputation was so widespread that he had to pay other
people to place bets for him, because no bookie would take his odds.
Now itís a binary program, and Jonathan is finding that some
nasty men are prepared to do some horrible things, including taking his wife
and her newly widowed friend hostage, in order to force him to turn it over.
Jonathan manages to trick the bad guys, and tries very hard to
return the system to the aged widow of the man who devised the original versions
of it. The most dangerous of the thugs goes to jail for 14 years and the
Derrys emigrate to America, all of which is a short novel in itself.
And then itís Williamís turn. William is Jonathanís much younger
brother. Fourteen years later, when Angelo Gilbert gets out of prison looking
for revenge, William is the Derry he can find. All he wants is a pound of
flesh and his computer betting program. William doesnít care about it, has
no little old lady to help, and decides that giving it to him is the best
way to get shed of him. But first he has to find it.
What Francis has done then, is to give us two very different
approaches to dealing with a similar problem. I found it an enjoyable romp,
but I do have one or two reservations.
Itís hard to do a story based on a computer program. The blasted
boxes change so fast that itís difficult to stay current. This book first
came out in 1981, and has recently been re-released. In 1981 Francis found
it necessary to add paragraphs of technical explanations on a subject which
was arcane at the time, but is elementary school stuff now. In fact, most
of it is out of date now, so itís mysterious in the other direction.
Once we move 14 years down the line, which would set the second
half of the book in the mid-1990s, the story should be dealing with much
newer technology. Indeed, there is a brief mention of the fact that this
program has to run on older computers. Really, it would long since have been
saved on some other medium by that time, but doing that would have spoiled
one of the little tricks in Williamís story, so it didnít happen. Or it could
be that Francis, dealing with TRS-80 level technology in his day, simply
couldnít have foreseen the various sizes of floppy disks that eventually
became standard storage, or the graphic user interface that has pretty much
wiped out the use of the command line and the ďc-promptĒ.
All that aside, Twice Shy, which I assume gets its name
from the old proverb ďonce bitten, twice shyĒ, remains an enjoyable read.
This first half is more of a puzzle story than is typical of Francis, while
the second half is a bit more physical. Unlike some reviewers Iíve read,
I like the ending. Angelo gets what he deserves and itís his own fault. Poetic
justice, Iíd say.