Murder plays favorites

Hot Money, by Dick Francis. London: Michael Joseph. 278 pp. 10.95. Dick Francis is known mainly for his racetrack thrillers. As a former steeplechase jockey, he knows the racing world well. But in his newest novel, ``Hot Money,'' the turf-and-stable scene is peripheral. True, the two lead characters, a father and son, are involved in the racing world - one as an owner, the other as an amateur jockey - but those scenes function almost as comic relief in this dark novel of greed, obsession, and murder.

At the core of ``Hot Money'' is Malcolm Pembroke, a businessman with a knack for making fortunes, mostly in gold. He has married five wives, divorced three of them, and fathered nine children. As the book opens, his latest wife has been murdered and someone has tried to kill him. He asks his son, Ian, to act as bodyguard and to solve the case since the police are unhelpful, even inept.

Ian does just that: He protects his father, introduces him to the joys of racehorse ownership, and soon concludes that the murderer must be one of his half-siblings.

From there, Dick Francis delves into a world of insatiable greed. All of the children (save Ian) want their father's money - now! They alternately vilify Ian for ``cutting them out'' and plead with him to put their needs before their father. They crave wealth, but their greed has become like charity: It covers a multitude of sins, and it is these hidden sides of their characters that Ian must expose to find the murderer and protect his father.

For Ian, the job of sifting through his siblings with the knowledge that one is a killer is horrible and difficult. Only his conviction that his father remains in danger ensures that he will complete the task. Like other Francis heroes, he acts honorably regardless of personal cost. But unlike them, he is not put through death-defying tests. Neither are there romantic interruptions for him.

Like Dorothy L. Sayers and P.D. James, Francis depicts murder not as a parlor game, the solution of which completes a neat puzzle, but as an invasive ill. The discovery of the killer's identity brings no joy to anyone.

``Hot Money'' retains many of the characteristics of earlier Francis novels: a fast pace, readable prose, and incisive depictions of character. But it breaks away from the Francis formula somewhat to explore the tenuous relationships between siblings in a multiple-divorce family. It draws clear pictures of the bullying, the lies, the manipulation, and the accusations of favoritism. The result may be less compelling than Francis's previous books, but it may also be his most honest novel to date.

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