"I Got the Horse Right Here"; John McEvoy's PHOTO FINISH
Posted by Barbara Leavy on May 21 2014, 6:16 PM
“I Got the Horse Right Here”: John McEvoy’s Photo Finish”
     Contemporary mystery writers often experiment with the traditional forms of crime novels. Sometimes a murderer is known at the start and the victim only at the end. Or if the perpetrator is identified at the beginning, the whodunit is transformed into a
psychological whydunit. What is unusual about John McEvoy’s Photo Finish, the fourth book in his Jack Doyle series, is that until the book is almost over, suspense does not build over who the killer is but rather which character is likely to kill which other one,
who is likely to be the perpetrator of a crime and who will be the victim? The latter might even be a racehorse with the “ugly” name of Plotkin. He is a “promising colt” that successfully runs against horses with names such as Pretty Pamela and Beautiful Day.
His very promise puts him in jeopardy and some of McEvoy’s readers may worry that his severed head is going to end up in someone’s bed.
      McEvoy has assembled a group of highly individualized, very interesting, complex but easily accessible characters. There is Ralph Tenuta, a trainer with so unblemished a record that when he is held responsible for the illegal drugging of his horses, he is
not only astonished but also worried. He has been suspended and fined by the Racing Commission, and while his expenses will remain the same, he cannot run any horses and earn any money. Tenuta has a second cousin, Lenny, whom he hardly knows, an
unstable character whose instability is accelerated by his addiction to crystal meth. He does not work and lives in his mother’s house. She is a recognizable figure, the mother who is an enabler and who is also in denial about the son who mooches off her and evensteals from her. Lenny hopes to make a killing (pun intended) at the races and is furiousat Tenuta because the latter will not give him the tips he thinks would allow him to bet on winning horses. He also feels vengeful toward Jack Doyle, who warns him by slapping him around not to even think of hurting Tenuta, which he has reason to think Lenny is planning,
     Two major characters are a pair of lovers who are veterinarians but who separate early in the book. Eric is an alcoholic whose drinking gets increasingly out of control until he is fired by Tenuta from his job at Heartland Downs Racetrack. Another vet had
much earlier been fired for doing his work badly, but it seems unlikely that will after all this time emerged to create problems for Tenuta. Meanwhile, Eric’s outrage is divided between the trainer who dismisses him and his lover Ingrid, who he thinks is responsible for the downturn in his career. For her reputation as a vet soars while his sinks. [Moreabout Ingrid later.] Every time Ingrid returns to her apartment, often late at night and alone, readers might draw an anxious breath. This kind of danger hovers about so many women in crime novels, some of them female investigators who put themselvesin jeopardy over and over again, that once again many readers may bring to Photo Finish plot elements they are familiar with and that will add to the suspense McEvoy creates.
      There are also mob figures in Photo Finish both in Chicago and in Ireland. They represent a myriad of crimes associated with racing. They have, for example, ways of pressuring reluctant riders to throw races. One amusing character with ties to the
mob is Moe Kellman, a furrier who is a friend of Jack’s and who is able to finance the buying and training of Plotkin, perhaps from the proceeds of his dealing with gangster, although the book never says so. According to racing rules neither Moe nor Jack can officially own the horse. Their way of getting around this prohibition is but one example of the means by which the rules of horseracing can be broken. McEvoy, however, is clearly devoted to the sport and is certainly not writing a polemic against it. The illegalities associated with horse racing, however, are useful for plotting.
      And finally there is a female jockey, Mickey Sheehan, who has come from Ireland to race in the United States. She is accompanied by her beautiful sister Nora, whom Jack Doyle falls in lust with, the term he uses when in the course of their affair Nora asks him if he thinks they are falling in love. The sisters have in Ireland a brother Kieran, an internationally-famous racer with whom they have hardly any contact; Nora explains that he is too self-involved to care much about family. Kieran later insists that he distanced himself from Mickey in order to discourage her from taking on the dangerous sport as a jockey. Kieran and Mickey will race against each other near the book’s exciting end and horse racing will prove to cement a bond between them that family relations could not. But a reader might wonder if his new closeness to her is as her brother or as a fellow jockey.
      It is Mickey who is at the center of Photo Finish. Diminutive as jockeys must be, she is described as blonde and curly-headed. She also eats like a horse (another intended pun) without putting on the extra ounces or pounds forbidden to jockeys. Mickey possesses exceptional physical and emotional strength and determination to win races. She also has the intelligence a good jockey needs to make swift changes in strategy when other horses do the unexpected, making a close study of how other jockeys, including her brother, race. To ask Mickey to be anything but a racer would be tantamount to asking her to cease breathing. A funny exchange in Photo Finish occurs when Moe, not knowing the jockey who will ride Plotkin is a woman, first sees her astride the horse and asks Jack, who is Mickey’s agent, “Is that a leprechaun you’ve put on our horse? What the hell?”
     Jack Doyle is probably is an example of a lead character who is best understood in the context of a series rather than in the standalone each book can be read as. While he is sociable and many scenes involve his presence at parties and dinners, there is about him some characteristics of the loner that suggest his descent from the private eyes of the hardboiled mystery genre. Readers may be startled when he has sex with Nora for the first time, and instead of some intimate pillow talk there follows a discussion of wherethis “dalliance” might lead. When he asks Nora if he should assume it will actually lead nowhere, he is really seeking assurance for himself that she will not expect their mutually satisfying time in bed to be the first step toward a future together. It is not that Jack lacks feelings; to the contrary they can be very strong. When Mickey gets hurt and a talk about
the sport he attends emphasizes how many jockeys do get hurt or die, he is extremely distressed. But his first response in PF is to wish to extricate himself from the world of horseracing in order to defend himself from the pain he is experiencing. In the course of
Photo Finish, Jack’s feelings about Nora reveal a growing ambivalence. What might become of their relationship is an additional narrative thread that McEvoy’s readers can follow, wondering what might happen.
      It goes without saying that readers of the Jack Doyle series will learn a great deal about horse racing and about the people involved in the care, training, and riding of the horses. It is possible to go further and say that it is the culture of the racetrack that adds significant complexity to McEvoy’s mystery.
     The word culture has been used so loosely that there are those, including cultural anthropologists, who say that the term is virtually useless. But some of the elements of culture that characterize the study of a group can be found in Photo Finish. First, although the characters in the book are quite distinct, even ethnically (there are Italian Catholics, Irish Catholics, an African- American, a Jew with grandchildren named Sinead Goldstein and Sean Bimstein, and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who are virtually synonymous with horseracing in the minds of those who equate the sport with high society, they form a definable group.
     Like all groups that form a culture, there is a hierarchy of its citizens or participants.In the case of horse racing, there is perhaps more accurately a split into two cultures or perhaps several subcultures. McEvoy has said outside the book (see note) that he has always been fascinated that the world of horse racing is “a striking microcosm of America, rich at the top, a huge struggling middle class, and low paid workers scuffling on the bottom end of the spectrum.  In Photo Finish this becomes clear when Plotkin is entered into a race at Saratoga Springs and those from Heartland Downs Racetrack accompany him and find themselves confronting a very different racing society, the socially elite ofthe sport. There is a buffet dinner given by Mrs. Whitney for those who work in the backstretch, the area where the stables are and where sometimes there is temporary housing for those who care for the horses.  Meanwhile, dining in expensive Saratoga restaurants, the socially elite men wear immaculate blazersand the women the elaborate hats often associated with the Ascot races in England. It is possible to wonder if McEvoy is introducing a political theme into the book, a criticism of the English couched as satire. 
     For the character he creates to represent this group is a drunken blowhard who confronts the Chicago group with insults, sneering at Plotkin while he also utters racial slurs. Moe bets him that Plotkin will come in before his entry, a horse named “Go Yale Blu.” When he turns to his own group, Kellman says, “’Go Yale Blue eh?’ . . . I remember a great comment on that educational pillar of privilege from a terrific novelist named Charles McCarry.  He wrote ‘All Yale alumni thought they had done everything tht could ever be expected of them in life simply by being admitted to Yale.’”  The blowhard represents those in the racing world who imagine they rather than the horses are thoroughbreds. Yale Blue, however, fails even to make a showing. The braggart only pays half of what he owes to Moe, the rest given in a promissory note that Moe tears up contemptuously.
     Yet all of those professionally involved in horse racing  are bound by the same rules that govern horseracing. Among these restrictions is one that is particularly stringent for trainers. If a transgression takes place, such as the drugging of horses, the trainer will be held responsible even if he is far away and has nothing to do with what happened. There is a judicial body, the Racing Authority, whose wardens evaluate the transgression and mete out penalties. There is also a Jockey Club whose members approve or not the proposed name of a race horse and it is after a number of names are turned down that Plotkin received the last name of his owner, who is tired of his submissions being turned down.
     There are also certain rituals engaged in by people united by the same culture. One of the best known in horse racing is the gathering of the winners of a race and their owners for the taking of pictures that commemorate the win. At one point, Moe chooses not to engage in this ritualistic ending to a race, for he dares not be recognized as one of Plotkin’s owners. Before the race lots are drawn in order to place the horses at particular gates before they start to run. The ritualistic element in drawing lots has been made
famous in Shirley Jackson’s renowned and always blood-chilling story “The Lottery” and what this story and horse racing have in common is that it is not always a favorable  lot  that is drawn. The gate from which a horse begins a race can be very important in terms of how the jockey runs the race, whether or not the race is won.  Another ritual in Photo Finish is marked by the drinking of a glass of champagne, almost a libation, by a jockey. Although there is disagreement about which liquor is most effective, there is a belief, perhaps a superstition, that the chosen drink will blunt the rider’s appetite and thereby prevent the weight gain jockeys must not allow themselves.
     As is true of most cultures, horse racing has its own folklore. One of the enjoyable aspects of Photo Finish is the stopping of the action so that one of the characters can tell a story. Some of these have to do with the history of the sport; they are the legends of horse racing. Many of these legends involve renowned heroes, and in Photo Finish, there is a story about Eddie Arcaro, a superstar among jockeys, In many legends and folktales the supernatural or paranormal are important elements. Which brings the veterinarian Ingrid back into this discussion. In addition to her skill as a doctor to animals, Ingrid is what is known as a horse communicator. She not only has a calming effect on horses as she speaks to them but reports that they speak as well to her. Not always and not all of them, she says. Her growing reputation as an effective communicator is part of the rift with Eric, who scoffs at her because he can’t communicate with horses and because he lacks the attention her special abilities bring her. He is in fact furious that her gift is part of her increasing esteem in the eyes of others while his reputation at the racetrack is plummeting.
     Jack and Moe are hardly angry but they are at first doubtful concerning reports that Ingrid has had amazing results from communicating with horses. The question remains, what does McEvoy want his readers to think? He says, again outside the book, that he has done extensive research on horse communicators and that they do exist. But the final demonstration in Photo Finish of Ingrid’s abilities can also be explained in solely naturalistic terms. Plotkin is going to be entered in a race in which Mickey will compete against not only other jockeys but also her brother Kieran, who will ride an entry named Boy from Sligo.The night before the race, Ingrid reports that Plotkin had spoken to her across the space that separated them, expressing his anxiety that he is again in danger of being doped. This had happened once before and it caused him to run wildly, out of control, with serious consequences following. Given the former incident, the accusations against Tenuta that he is involved in giving illegal drugs to his horses, the fierce competition and even desperation among trainers, some of whom are losing vast amounts of money because their horses are not performing well, it is not unreasonable to think that Ingrid herself is anxious. And that she is projecting that anxiety onto Plotkin, reporting that he had told her about his fears. Either way, the powers of a horse communicator are consistent with some of the elements of folklore, in which talking animals are frequent characters.
      It is interesting that the stories in Photo Finish are told by Tenuta or Moe and not by Jack. All peoples have their stories and have valued their storytellers, and the stories they tell are aspects of their cultures. That Jack doesn’t tell his own might not of and by itself have any importance. But in the popular mind there is a special affinity for storytelling associated with the Irish. The storytelling tradition in Ireland goes back centuries, and not only was storytelling prized, but some Irish legendary heroes were both storytellers and warriors, Oisin and Cuchulainn among them. In more recent times according to W. B. Yeats, there came a split between the man of action and the literary artist, and a choice had to be made between “perfection of the life or of the work.”
    The only well-known investigator in crime fiction who is also a poet is P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh, and James tells us he is a poet rather than showing us his poetry. Jack Doyle has chosen  the active life over art. But John McEvoy is telling stories about Jack Doyle, writing books about him. And as Joe Queenan has written about his passionate attachment to the written word, he was for a long time unaware of how books filled all the rooms of his house: “My obliviousness to this fact has an obvious explanation: I am of Irish descent, and to the Irish, books are as natural and inevitable a feature of the landscape as sand is to Tuaregs.”
     The Tuaregs are nomadic people who inhabit the Sahara. The Queenan quotation comes from his absorbing, funny but also sometimes outrageous One for the Books. The title of this discussion, “I Got the Horse Right Here” is taken from the lyrics of a song in the musical Guys and Dolls, based on stories by Damon Runyan. The only Runyanesque characters in PF, however, seem to exist inside the Off-Track Betting parlor in which some of the action occurs when Lenny comes close to breaking the place up. The horse that the character in the musical finds in a racing sheet at the track is named Paul Revere (an obvious association), very different from Plotkin.
     John McEvoy is a former editor of the Daily Racing Form Daily Racing Form and has written both fiction and non-fiction books about horseracing. He has received two starred reviews and was twice the recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award (described on the website as given by the largest not-for-profit trade association of independent publishers). Their awards are granted in several categories one of which is Mystery/Suspense). The non-fiction Great Horse Racing Mysteries received the award in 2000 and his crime novel Riders Down in 2007.
     I have quoted from some of McEvoy’s e-mail exchanges with me, about his research on horse communicators and his finding in horse racing a microcosm of America.

     Visit McEvoy's webside, johnmcevoybooks.com

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