A mysterious rush of bets on the Man Booker Prize for Fiction has seen the novelist Hilary Mantel installed as early favourite after 95 per cent of all wagers on the contest were placed on her.
William Hill said yesterday that it had "never seen a betting pattern like it" and slashed the odds on a win for Mantel's longlisted Wolf Hall from 12-1 right down to 2-1.
Since the 13-strong list was announced last week, hundreds of people had placed bets of up to £50 on Mantel, said Graham Sharpe of William Hill, who added that it was "rare to see this kind of gamble". Betting usually only heats up in September when the entrants are whittled down to a shortlist of six. "But", said Mr Sharpe, "it is as though a tip has gone around the literary world telling everyone that Mantel is a certainty. Quite a lot of them [who are placing bets] are what we would describe as literary insiders. Nobody quite seems to know why. We'll lose a five figure sum if the support continues."
The rush to back Mantel was "definitely the biggest Booker gamble since Life of Pi was backed as though defeat was out of the question a few years ago," he said. Betting on the 2002 Booker prize was suspended after the award's official website accidentally displayed a dummy page naming Yann Martel's novel as the winner. The organisers said a similar page had been prepared for each of the shortlisted authors. Martel did, in fact, go on to take the prize.
Hilary Mantel, a 57-year-old from Glossop, Derbyshire, features for the first time in a Booker longlist that has been described by James Naughtie, chairman of the judges, as "one of the strongest in living memory". Also listed are previous winners J M Coetzee and A S Byatt. Wolf Hall, Mantel's 12th book, is a story dealing with power, loyalty and state-sponsored violence in the court of Henry VIII, told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith's son who rose to become the monarch's right-hand man.
But Mr Sharpe ruled out any suggestion of foul play in this year's betting. "It would be unusual for the judges already to know who they were picking as the eventual winner. It may be just a case of a lot of people deciding on the same one at the same time," he said. Bookmaker Paddy Power has also made Wolf Hall the clear favourite, offering odds of 5-2. The 2009 winner of the £50,000 prize will be announced on 6 October.