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LONDON (Reuters) - South African-born J.M. Coetzee could become the first writer to claim the coveted Man Booker Prize three times when the winner is announced on Tuesday, but bookmakers are predicting a different outcome.
Their overwhelming favorite is 57-year-old Briton Hilary Mantel, whose "Wolf Hall," about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, has led the odds ever since the shortlist for one of the world's top literary awards was revealed last month.
"By the time we close our book, Wolf Hall could easily be the best-backed book in the prize's history," said Ladbrokes spokesman Nick Weinberg, adding the novel had attracted over 75 percent of all bets.
The winner, selected by a five-member jury from English-language works by authors from the Commonwealth and Ireland, receives a cheque for 50,000 pounds ($80,000) but can also expect to see sales rise sharply amid a publicity blitz.
Critics have praised "Wolf Hall," a work of historical fiction which opens with Cromwell as victim of his violent father and picks up his story when he is in the service of Cardinal Wolsey.
He rises through the ranks to become one of King Henry VIII's most trusted aides, helping the monarch in his attempts to break with the papacy in Rome.
A sequel is reportedly in the works, taking the reader to the grisly end of Cromwell's life. He was executed in 1540.
"Wolf Hall is that very rare thing: a truly great English novel, one that explores the intersection of individual psychology and wider politics," the Booker judges said on the prize's website.
Coetzee, who won the prize in 1983 with "Life & Times of Michael K" and in 1999 with "Disgrace," is in contention with "Summertime," the story of a young biographer who is working on a book about the late writer John Coetzee.
The work completes a trilogy of fictionalized memoirs for Nobel laureate Coetzee, 69, following "Boyhood" and "Youth."
Another previous Booker winner on the shortlist this year is A.S. Byatt, whose "Possession" triumphed in 1990.
The 73-year-old has been nominated for "The Children's Book," the tale of a famous writer who pens a separate, private book for each of her children, complete with family mysteries.
The novel explores issues of class, love, politics and idealism among families across generations.
The youngest author on the 2009 shortlist is Adam Foulds, born in 1974, whose novel "The Quickening Maze" is based on real events that took place at an asylum near London in the 1840s.
The book tells the story of the incarceration of nature poet John Clare, who struggled with alcoholism, neglect and depression.
A novel about a house in Czechoslovakia owned by a newly married couple, the Landauers, is the basis for Simon Mawer's entry on the list, "The Glass Room." The Jewish-Gentile couple prepare to flee as the threat of World War Two grows.
Rounding out the shortlist is "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters, which tells of Dr. Faraday, who returns to a house, Hundreds Hall, that he has not seen for decades only to realize how the family home has declined.
Waters, 43, has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker before, in 2002 for "Fingersmith" and "The Night Watch" in 2006.