Since High Stakes is the fifth in John McEvoy’s Jack Doyle mystery series, I would assume that there were readers enough for the first four to justify the new entry. But if those other books, books I haven’t read, are anything like High Stakes, I can’t imagine why.
The mystery begins with what seems to be an animal rights fanatic killing older race horses being used for experimentation in veterinary colleges. Jack, who at one time had been involved in the racing business, is called upon by the FBI to help in the investigation. Now while this is certainly a crime, and it needs to be dealt with, it isn’t quite on a par with The Green River Killer—stakes are not quite that high.
Perhaps recognizing that, McEvoy raises them. Turns out a wealthy media figure whom Doyle had been instrumental in putting in prison in a previous case is making a deal with a mob-type attorney also in prison to put a hit out on our hero. Stakes still not high enough? An Irish bookmaker friend, also from a previous case, has himself been targeted by a hit man, and his wife would like Doyle to trot over to the old sod and look into it. Need more? McEvoy tops out with an older couple of horse owners being threatened by a megalomaniacal internet millionaire who wants to buy their most promising horse. Their trainer, on old friend, calls Jack for help.
The trouble is that none of these have anything in common with each other nor do they generate much suspense. McEvoy, in the tradition of most page-turners, moves back and forth among these different plot elements, but they rarely get the job done; at least they didn’t get me eagerly turning those pages. Moreover, when it comes to solving these problems, it turns out that Doyle really doesn’t do all that much.
Doyle is the kind of character you would expect as the central figure in a crime series. He is an ex-boxer who has kept himself physically fit and in fighting trim. He is a fixture around the racing scene, and we all know what the racing scene has done for Dick Francis, or perhaps what Dick Francis has done for the racing scene. He is unattached and attractive and he knows the right people. He has a wise mouth, although all too often his wit takes the form of an “Al Fresca, al fresco” pun, topped off with “Al Dente.” But when it comes to actually doing something by way of investigation, he doesn’t meet expectations.
He is supported by a large cast of interesting characters: a lesbian FBI agent and her irascible partner, a lovely veterinarian with a knack for hooking up with the wrong man, an elderly furrier with connections to the mob, a benevolent Irish bookmaker, and a sweet colleen to reward him for an abundance of trips to Ireland.
Given McEvoy’s experience with thoroughbred racing – he was a former editor and columnist for the Daily Racing Form – he knows the world he describes. The real trouble is that he doesn’t talk about it enough. The race track has traditionally offered fiction writers a rich vein to mine for their stories. I don’t know about Jack Doyle, volumes one through four, but Doyle volume five could do with more digging in that mine.