At 89, the champion of horse thrillers has finally slowed down

<strong>EVEN MONEY</strong><br />BY DICK FRANCIS AND FELIX FRANCIS<br />Michael Joseph, &pound;18.99<br /><br />THE action opens at a racecourse &ndash; where else? Ned Talbot, an independent bookie, is at Royal Ascot drawing to the end of an unlucky day in which the punters keep winning.<br /><br />As with many Francis heroes, Ned&rsquo;s feeling a bit weary with life. His wife Sophie has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and reacts nervously to news of his losses. Also, Talbot&rsquo;s star employee is talking about quitting. Our heroic bookie is generally grumpy about being a small fish in a pond dominated by enormous, snapping sharks. <br /><br />Through the crowd &ndash; and his musings &ndash; comes an older gentleman who won&rsquo;t leave Talbot alone. Turns out (quickly) that the man is his father, who was meant to have died with his mother in a car crash when Talbot was a child, and whose business Talbot inherited.<br /><br />Before long, a brutal attack takes place, and a series of strange things happen, including the appearance of a bundle of counterfeit papers and a strange electronic device. A murderous scam unfolds, in which Talbot&rsquo;s father is implicated. <br /><br />In many senses, this is trademark Francis, even with the collaboration of his son Felix, who has written two others with him. There&rsquo;s the unstinting detail about horse racing, the wry narrative voice and the spot of drastic violence. There are the sly baddies and the worldy good &lsquo;uns, and a relatively happy ending that ties together all the book&rsquo;s sinister loose ends. <br /><br />But like a horse that&rsquo;s been raced too much, Francis, now 89, is tired, and it shows. With its ploddy prose and box-ticking structure, the book is lacklustre and seems bored with itself &ndash; or maybe that&rsquo;s just me. &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; <br /><br /><strong>PRESENT DANGER</strong><br />BY STELLA RIMINGTON<br />Quercus, &pound;14.99<br />STELLA RIMINGTON is to political thrillers what Dick Francis is to race-horse ones: an expert in the field. The former head of MI5, Rimington served as top dog from 1992-1996 and, once retired, cleverly decided to use all that genuinely thriller-worthy knowledge for book-shelf fodder. <br /><br />She has carved out quite exploring the post-Cold War landscape with lots of intelligence. In this, her fifth novel, her heroine Liz Carlyle is reluctantly posted to Northern Ireland. She is soon involved in the murky world of small dissident groups and realises that despite the peace process, Northern Ireland is not as peaceful as she thought.&nbsp; <br /><br />An informant reports a plot is being hatched against Carlyle and other security forces &ndash; a French intelligence officer becomes a suspect and it isn&rsquo;t long until Liz is off to Paris to investigate (which adds a welcome bit of glamour). When her colleague goes missing, Liz fears she might be in deeper water than she had feared.<br /><br />There is lots of explanatory dialogue and some clunky prose here &ndash; Len Deighton it is not &ndash; but the real problem with Rimington&rsquo;s books is that she is very much part of the establishment. When John Le Carre published books, you used to hear stories about people in the security services being furious with him for revealing too much. With Rimington, you get the feeling she&rsquo;s not giving away too many trade secrets.<br /><br />However, if you can overlook that, this is racy stuff, and gripping too. &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; <br /><br /><strong>THE WHITE QUEEN</strong><br />BY PHILLIPA GREGORY<br />Simon and Schuster, &pound;18.99<br /><br />GREGORY has written another enthralling read, once again proving she&rsquo;s the mistress of down and dirty historical fiction that appeals to women and (secretly) men, too.<br /><br />The White Queen is the first in a new series called The Cousins&rsquo; War, and is set amid the scandal and bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses. True to her USP, Gregory tells a tale of dynastic violence, power struggle and sheer intrigue through the voices of the women calling the shots on the scene. With this, she takes one of England&rsquo;s lesser known queens, Elizabeth Woodville, of the House of Lancaster. <br /><br />A relative commoner, Woodville was the daughter of Richard Woodville, First Earl Rivers and Jacquetta of Luxembourg. To add insult to injury in the eyes of history, she was accused of using witchcraft to seduce Edward IV, with whom she had 10 children. She was also considered one the most beautiful women in the country, in large part for her &ldquo;heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon.&rdquo; Of course, her beauty was no coincidence &ndash; she would not have been Queen without it. <br /><br />Here, the action begins as Elizabeth is widowed by her first husband. Egged on by her mother, Elizabeth seduces and marries reigning King Edward in secret, embarking on a life of uproar and conflict as well as motherhood and true conjugal love.&nbsp; Gregory&rsquo;s interest lies with the rivalries between the Lancastrian and Royal families and their trail of destruction and murder. Gregory has masterfully charted the blood-stained rise to royalty of a commoner who rose up the ranks on the strength of her beauty. The book is irresistible with or without the fact that Elizabeth Woodville is one of the most enigmatic figures in pre-Tudor history &ndash; given that she is, it&rsquo;s even better. <br />