Book Review : Off to the Races With a Large Cast of Also-Rans

The Hard Knocker's Luck, by William Murray (Viking: $14.95)

For openers, the reader of William Murray's second novel, "The Hard Knocker's Luck," has to be prepared to accept as a credible protagonist a man with the unpromising nickname of "Shifty," and who, as a Solid Citizen, falls just a notch above the respectability of, say, a sidewalk vendor of discount watches.

Shifty Anderson, alas, is a "hard knocker" by persuasion. What's a hard knocker? In mystery-author Murray's words, a hard knocker is a man who would "rather bet his money on a horse race than do anything else, except possibly breathe." But, by profession, Shifty is a close-up magician--a sleight-of-hand performer with coins and playing cards--who, in his prosperous periods plays the Magic Castle/Las Vegas lounge/cruise ship circuit.

Down on His Luck

So, as dashing heroes go, Shifty falls considerably short in the glamour department--a $10 bettor at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park who has to borrow a necktie to get into the Turf Club at the track. And as author Murray picks up his unlikely protagonist in this continuing saga that began with last year's well-received Shifty Anderson opus, "Tip on a Dead Crab," things are not going well at all for a man whose livelihood (off the track) depends on nimble fingers. Not with one of those fingers encased in a splint as the result of a housecleaning accident--a form of activity almost unknown to Shifty and, he bitterly concludes, an incident with an important moral lesson.

Thus, while picking up a few stray dollars in his convalescence as a hawker of kiddie books in a Santa Monica department store, Shifty finds himself moving in to defend a beautiful customer nabbed by the store security guard for shoplifting, and a torrid romance is off and running.

For Allyson Meade, she of the purloined purse, a white knight is a white knight--horse player, or not--and Shifty is a distinct improvement over the oily art dealer who is currently her estranged husband. As this affair of the heart further entangles them, Shifty becomes increasingly involved with Allyson's husband--a relatively recent smash commercial success in art circles, thanks to his affiliation with a fabulously wealthy art collector of dubious ethics.

Enter some of Shifty's race track cronies, including the talented if unsuccessful artist Freddie Chambers, who also has the distinction of being the world's worst judge of horse flesh, Freddie's go-go dancing friend, Boom-Boom Hogan, and a valiant if undistinguished horse named Prairie Winds who is running one step ahead of the truck to the glue-factory, and with whom Allyson falls hopelessly in love.

But something is quickly falling apart here as Shifty realizes that Allyson, a complete track novice, has an uncanny ability to spot long-shot winners, and as the chronically impoverished Freddie suddenly begins flashing a roll at the track big enough to choke any of the also-rans that he invariably picks.

Puzzling Questions

What's the relationship between Freddie (and his prosperity), and Allyson's husband and his millionaire patron? Who would want Boom-Boom and her companion-for-an-evening out of the way badly enough to murder them? Why is Freddie, himself, beaten nigh unto death after visiting an art museum? How and why did Shifty drop his guard enough to agree to hide a painting that a number of people seem to want badly enough to give him the Boom-Boom treatment?

Author Murray, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, for which he writes the "Letters from Italy" column, knows his art and his horses equally well and has a fine ear for the language of the track. While some elements of his plot are fairly predictable (although there are a few inventive twists), he can be forgiven some trespasses here. He more than makes up for it with the jaunty likability of his characters and his tongue-in-cheek, Runyonesque dialogue.

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