06/29/2012 3:31PM

Hovdey: 'Photo Finish' a hot summer read


I’ve been inhaling a lot of horse stories lately. No, not the kid’s stuff, like “Black Beauty” or C. W. Anderson or even Ralph Moody’s seminal “Come On, Seabiscuit,” which I read to death before I was 12. And not the classic racetrack lore spun by Damon Runyon in “Little Miss Marker” or John Taintor Foote in “The Look of Eagles” or Joe Palmer writing about anything.

The list leans more toward mainstream literary types who went slumming at the races, or somewhere close, putting a horse or horse people at the core of a story. This led quickly to “My Old Man,” Hemingway’s tale of son’s love for a failed father, and to “Silver Blaze,” a Sherlock Holmes mystery like no other, in which the killer turns out to be . . . oops, almost slipped.

I was not aware of a short story by Joyce Carol Oates called “Meadowlands,” set right where you’d expect from the title and ending not so much with a twist but a hard, cold slap. “Jockey,” by Carson McCullers, is an unflinching look at the high price paid to play the game, while Sherwood Anderson pretty much took care of the coming-of-age theme in “I Want to Know Why.” After reading that one, way back when, I didn’t think I needed to bother with “Winesburg, Ohio.”

“Rocking Horse Winner,” by D.H. Lawrence, absolutely guts me with its dizzying cocktail of obsession and desperation. Faulkner can be heavy lifting, but nothing matches the horse race at the end of “The Reivers.” And thank goodness Hunter Thompson did not stop with the Kentucky Derby when it came to his morbid fascination with the horse world.

In “Polo Is My Life: Fear and Loathing in Horse Country,” Thompson, ever generous, described horses as “. . . dangerously stupid beasts with brains the size of cue balls and hoofs that can crush your whole foot into bone splinters just by accidentally stepping on your toe. Some will do it on purpose.”

Thompson neglected to note that horses are also good judges of character, in fiction or non.

I would not do my friend and author John McEvoy the disservice of comparing his work to that of Hemingway, Lawrence, or Faulkner, especially since they’re dead and he’s still in the game. But it is a delight to report that McEvoy’s fifth work of racetrack mystery fiction has hit the shelves just in time to be added to the summer reading pile, now that I’ve just about finished with all those other high-brows.

“Photo Finish,” from Poisoned Pen Press, picks up McEvoy’s ever-nimble hero (and presumed alter-ego) Jack Doyle in yet another profession but still a racetrack character in full. This time Doyle is a jock’s agent, and his jockey is a wee Irish lass with a larcenous brother and curvacious sister. There is also a veterinarian with both ESP and an alcoholic boyfriend (didn’t see that coming), an old-timey horse trainer with a rocket ship of a 2-year-old, and a few more dicey characters who creep in from the cheap seats to spice up the mix.

McEvoy’s mysteries follow in the footsteps of the late William Murray, whose “Tip on a Dead Crab,” published in 1985, set loose Murray’s entertaining series of books in the genre. Steeped in the game – McEvoy was the longtime editor of Daily Racing Form ’s Midwest edition – these guys love a good racing story and know how to put it across.

And like any mystery writer worth his laptop, McEvoy loves to read good mysteries.

“Raymond Chandler, the master,” McEvoy replied, when asked for his favorites. “Early Dick Francis. Michael Connelly, and Thomas Perry among the contemporaries. And I really like this guy from Norway, Joe Nesbo.”

There are no fjords in McEvoy’s Chicago, where his mysteries find their home, but plenty of dark corners and casual corruption.

“I’d always planned to write novels,” McEvoy said. “Then when I got ‘right-sized’ out of the Form I got to start writing them five years earlier than I’d planned.”

It should be noted here that the difference between a journalist with a daily deadline and an author of books published every couple of years is about the same as the difference between a sprinter and the horse who wins the San Juan Capistrano. They are the same only as far they might put “writer” as their profession on a passport.

“I usually write early in the morning, and I try to produce at least 500 words a day, sometimes more,” McEvoy said. “Then later in the day I’ll reread it and make adjustments, or notes on what I want to do the next day. I’ve always known the beginning of the book and the ending of the book. It’s filling in the arc between that’s the challenge.”

McEvoy has discovered, and not really to his surprise, that he is tapping into everything he’s ever encountered in the world of horse racing.

“I probably started making some notes maybe 10 years before I left the Form,” McEvoy said. “I was reading a recent obituary of Nora Ephron, whose mother was a writer who said, ‘Everything is copy.’ ”

There can be wild plot swings in a McEvoy mystery that might lead a reader to raise a skeptical eyebrow and mumble “this can’t happen.” Then comes the next day’s headlines in the racing press, laden with reports of fixed pick sixes, legs hacked off dead horses, miraculous comebacks, and frog juice. McEvoy was asked if it was possible to make up any story too preposterous about horse racing to be believed. He didn’t have to think hard.

“No,” he said. “You can’t.”

And he still gets to call it fiction.