Twice Shy

Reviewed: February 14, 2003
By: Dick Francis
Publisher: Pan Books
405 Pages, $7.99

Lots of mystery stories have that “happy ever after” 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 it’s 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 better’s 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 it’s 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 it’s William’s turn. William is Jonathan’s 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 doesn’t 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.

It’s hard to do a story based on a computer program. The blasted boxes change so fast that it’s 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 it’s 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 William’s story, so it didn’t happen. Or it could be that Francis, dealing with TRS-80 level technology in his day, simply couldn’t 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 “c-prompt”.

All that aside, Twice Shy, which I assume gets its name from the old proverb “once bitten, twice shy”, 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 I’ve read, I like the ending. Angelo gets what he deserves and it’s his own fault. Poetic justice, I’d say.