My husband has a collection of Dick Francis novels, most of which he inherited from his grandfather, so they have sentimental value. When I was pondering what to read for the “Dough” category, he suggested giving one of them a try since they focus on horse racing and gambling. Dick Francis was a British steeplechase jockey who, post-career, wrote a weekly racing column and then branched out into fiction.
This novel wasn’t quite what I expected because I went in thinking it was going to be a mystery, whereas it is more crime fiction/thriller. My husband describes these novels as “fun” and “gentlemanly” crime fiction. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment 100%, but he reads quite a bit of James Elroy, so I can see where anything short of hacking up multiple bodies might seem gentlemanly.
Twice Shy is about a physics professor named Jonathan Derry who receives some computer tapes (yes, tapes, more on that later) from his friend Peter. Apparently Peter, a computer programmer, had created a program for betting on the ponies for a client, and a couple of rough guys showed up wanting it. Peter had already delivered the finished product to his client, but these toughs were scary, so he gave them rough drafts and told them it was the real thing. He cleaned up what he had on his computer and gave copies of the tapes (I’m serious, they were tapes!) in a few of those hinged plastic cassette packages (plastic cassette packages!) disguised as Broadway show tunes to Jonathan for safekeeping.
This is a classic crime-thriller setup and you can probably guess that Peter doesn’t live much longer. Now Jonathan has the tapes and eventually the thugs figure it out and come after him.
Twice Shy is a decent crime thriller; I’d classify it as a comfortable beach read. I had a few complaints as I read. There’s a sub-plot about Jonathan and his wife Sarah having marriage problems that largely stem from her inability to have a baby, which is simply not something I can relate to. And honestly, while I don’t have a frame of reference, the portraits of Sarah and her childless friend Donna (Peter’s wife) didn’t ring true to me and might even be called unkind.
At any rate, the centerpiece of this story is the computer program, and that’s what I want to talk about. The program that Peter has come up with asks a series of questions about any given horse race at a limited number of local tracks and delivers the likely winner. This type of analysis isn’t unusual for gamblers, but the program does it so well that it delivers a winner 33% of the time. Those are great odds, and the novel acknowledges that such programs have been tried before and have never worked as there are so many variables on any given day. But the author earns the suspension of disbelief by emphasizing that there is legwork to be done on the part of the gambler–they have to research the history of the horses and stay on top of current standings, etc. As a plot device, it might be far-fetched but is certainly less crazy than most of what we accept as plausible in movies today.
What I really enjoyed about this novel was reading about computer programming 1980s-style. I’m old enough to remember the days of the 5 1/4-inch floppy disk with the little window where you couldn’t touch or you’d erase everything on your disk. My family’s first computer was a Commodore that we used exclusively for playing video games, and my first laptop had a 20 MB hard drive. But even I have never used a computer tape that could fit into your standard Broadway show tune packaging.
Let me share a couple of excerpts that tickled me. In this scene, Jonathan consults with a fellow teacher about the tapes. The computer teacher explains the differences between two types of computers: “The Harris has no language built into it. You can feed it any computer language, FORTAN, COBOL, ALGOL, Z-80, BASIC, you name it, the Harris will take it. But the Grantley is a smaller affair which comes all ready pre-programmed with its own form of BASIC. If you had a Grantley BASIC language tape, you could feed it into our Harris’s memory, and then you could run Grantley BASIC programs.”
HOW DID WE LIVE LIKE THIS, PEOPLE!
Lucky for Jonathan, Peter had included a copy of Grantley BASIC on the first tape, so they were able to load the programs. More fun ensues! They find the tape lists names of towns that have racecourses. They decide to explore Epsom.
” ‘OK,’ he said. He rewound the tape with agile fingers and typed CLOAD “EPSOM” on the keyboard. ‘This puts the program file under EPSOM into the computer, but you know that, of course. I keep forgetting.’ ”
After the encouraging word “READY” appears on the screen, they type “RUN” on the keyboard ad the following message appears:
WHICH RACE AT EPSOM? TYPE NAME OF RACE AND PRESS ‘ENTER’.
My God, at this point I’m tripping. Seeing all those uppercase letters and DOS commands sends me down memory lane. At one point a character shares the tapes with another character by playing them over the phone! I know that was a thing, it’s just hard to believe how recent it was. I forget how much has happened over the last 40 years (Twice Shy was published in 1982).
So to sum up, as a crime novel, 3 stars. As a bit of nostalgia for computer geeks or children of the 80s, 5 stars!