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STORYTELLERS : Track, Casino, Newsroom, Squad Car

January 24, 1988|DON CAMPBELL

"Were it not for imagination, sir, a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as of a duchess." Aye, there's the difference between the experienced storyteller and the likes of thee and me--the sort of imagination that can plop unlikely character A into macabre situation B and not raise the reader's eyebrow a millimeter. Imagination as personified, for instance, by ex-jockey-turned-novelist, Dick Francis, whose fans would continue to follow him if he confined his output to bottle labels.

In Hot Money, his 26th novel, Francis is in fine, off-beat, form--reveling more in his zany cast of characters than in horse racing. Who did in wealthy gold trader, Malcolm (Midas) Pembroke's fifth, barracuda-like wife, Moira, and more power to him/her? When the police can't nail Pembroke for the deed, it becomes obvious that the gold trader, himself, is also a target. Enter, for protection, the old man's estranged son, Ian, and the two embark on a global odyssey of reconciliation as the old man teaches Ian how to apply his investment know-how to the race track where the son is already a successful amateur jockey and horse player.

Meanwhile, Ian is exploring the psyches--and motives--of his brothers and sisters and their spouses, all of whom are just one jump ahead of the men with the butterfly nets. Great fun, a good mystery and well deserving of its spot as a dual selection of the Literary Guild, as featured alternate by the Mystery Book Club and as a Reader's Digest Condensed Book entry. And then there's the high guru of international money market hanky panky, Paul Erdman, also with an off-beat contender for the best-seller lists, The Palace. While his own career as an international banker went awry when Erdman spent almost a year in a Swiss jail when his bank-employer left him to hang out to dry in an abortive currency-exchange scheme, Erdman's subsequent success as a novelist specializing in the international fast-track ("The Panic of '89," "The Billion Dollar Sure Thing," "The Silver Bears," etc.) is the best kind of revenge.

Almost without exception the Swiss banking fraternity comes out of each novel with egg on its face. In his latest novel, though, Erdman has narrowed his focus--to the free-wheeling days of Las Vegas in the '60s when casino skimming, political payoffs, and casual murder were de rigueur. And, for Erdman with his fascination with suave, international banking types, a most unorthodox protagonist: dumpy, unprepossessing, Philadelphia-based Danny Lehman--physically a Danny DeVito look-alike--ex-junk dealer and ex-coin dealer who suddenly finds himself swept up in international currency exchange and, as principal launderer for Las Vegas hot money, a prime candidate to take over one of the city's most unsanitary casinos. It's over-his-head time for the little Jewish fellow, likable in spite of his loutishness, and his statuesque, black, ex-hooker compatriot, Sandra Lee, as they line up foreign financing for his takeover of the casino. And he, at least, is no match for the cutthroats in their pin-striped frock coats. A fast-paced change of direction for Erdman and a Literary Guild Dual Main Selection.

For imagination broader in its time scope, try Anna Murdoch's Family Business, a vital and exciting novel about a newspaper publishing family that spans three generations--from a small weekly paper in a Colorado silver boom town to progressively larger, more powerful papers, first in the West and then spreading to the East Coast and then to London. In spite of its sprawling format, this chronicle of the McLean family, focusing on dynamic Yarrow McLean, the founder's granddaughter and her lifelong, unconventional love affair, is a taut, exciting tale of power politics in New York as well as an absorbing history of the newspaper business from the days of hand-set type to today's computerized pagination.

As an alternate selection of the Literary Guild, Murdoch's second novel (her first, "In Her Own Image," was well received) justifies Morrow's $100,000 initial promotional budget and the national author tour it has lined up. And if broad time frames are your bag, you'll also love Judith Greber's Mendocino, which covers, count them, no fewer than seven generations of a Northern California family through whose blood courses traces of virtually every culture that left its mark on this fascinating and dynamic corner of California--Russian, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Portuguese and even that of a proper Bostonian swept up in the great trek West.

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