Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Edge - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1988

Dick Francis writes his twenty seventh novel - The Edge, with the character of Tor Kelsey playing the lead. For once, the hero is not a jockey but a successful sleuth, and the story is set on the Great Transcontinental Train in Canada - instead of a racetrack in the UK. Kelsey narrates the story as well. On board the train are a group of wealthy horse owners, who have chartered it, promoting equestrian sport through a series of races, an adrenalin charging, and high profile junket for the rich and famous.

Also, there are on board actors who add flavor to the journey – acting out a whodunit about the killing of a horse, asking fellow travelers to help solve the case. Kelsey is on board, in the guise of a waiter. A bit of background on Kelsey - he is a wealthy fellow but is working ‘to avoid the temptation of being able to have every sweet in the sweet shop’, currently employed with the Jockey Club, but only because he loves horses and the racetrack, he is, as mentioned earlier, a smart investigator who has a winning personality.

He is here, on the trail of a murderer or killers, one of whom is Julius Apollo Filmer, who has to his discredit an unexplained number of deaths. The aim of the horse lovers is to promote love for Canadian equestrian sport across the country - and Julius is the man who wants to throw a spanner in the works. Tor is employed with the Club to tail Filmer, known in the racing circles for having the reputation of a troublemaker. Julius has the standing of one of the coldest hearted and cruel operatives of the racetrack underworld, implicated in the death of a stable hand, and is the most likely reason why a trainer killed himself.

Amongst the other passengers are the Lorimer family, wealthy and famous, they are lending their hand (and wallet) to contribute towards the growth of Canadian equestrian sport; the  family seems perfect, except that beneath the surface are chinks in the armor. The most sought after character of Filmer is someone we see very little of, but his presence is felt throughout the story, it’s as if the negativity of his being is all pervasive.

The whodunit enacted by the troupe of actors on board, meant to entertain, is actually carried out - and Kelsey’s adeptness is under the scanner as he works to solve the case. However, let it be made clear to the reader, that Tor is aware who the criminal is - it’s just that he doesn’t have enough evidence to nab the guy. Typical cat and mouse game, Tor the cat is waiting to pounce on Filmer the mouse - when – that is the question! Key witnesses have backed out at the last minute, given Filmer’s track record for intimidation.

The novel’s appeal lies in the fact that the element of adventure and mystery is enhanced by the train journey, also, the character of Tor, though near perfect, has human blemishes - he is concerned how his lack of foresight and strategizing to prevent a train crash would impact families and his own guilt at having failed to save lives. An audio book for this novel is narrated by Tony Britton, a Dick Francis favorite, with an almost convincing Canadian accent. A good read, if you are a first timer – you’re hooked to Francis, if not, this is another masterpiece from the author for your personal collection!

The Edge - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1988

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Straight - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1989

When he is almost rendered jobless after an accident that leaves his ankle broken, steeplechase jockey Derek Franklin’s sagging spirits are further pushed to the bounds of being broken when he receives sad news. Greville Saxony Franklin is hooked. To life support. And soon he bids farewell to the world. Derek inherits his brother’s life - wealth, horses, business, mistress, and his enemies - a deadly inheritance. The two brothers have rarely ever met, a consequence of their parents having separated, there is a bond between them.

Greville was a lawyer, who imported precious stones, and was a frequent face at the racecourse. He loved his money making enterprise, and generously bequeaths it all to his baby brother - nineteen years his junior. The very first attack was unexpected, and left Derek flabbergasted - after gathering the belongings of his dead brother, he is crudely mugged, the bag with Greville’s belongings, snatched from him.

"The bad scorn the good, and the crooked despise the straight”- reads a note Greville wrote shortly before he passed away. Derek soon discovers that his older brother’s fondness for the greens was insatiable. On plunging head on into sorting and sifting through Saxony’s business and financial affairs, he is informed that a large cache of diamonds has gone missing. If Derek is unable to trace the stones, his brother’s carefully built - up business will go kaput.

In the midst of it all, he is confronted with the harshness of the British Law which forbids jockeys from owning horses - so he would therefore have to sell his brother’s equestrian wealth. Derek also uncovers Greville’s romantic liaisons with a married woman, his mistress. Struggling to strike a balance, his life is overtaken by the decisions his brother took when alive.

Uncovering layers of greed, evil and ambition, triggering a vicious cycle of events leading to murder and mayhem - Dick Francis delves deep into the cesspool of human emotions. The writer has his pulse on the underbelly of horse racing - the drugging of innocent animals to sate the avarice of men, commerce infiltrates the sporting arena, threatening to rip apart the moral fabric of the men and women involved.

Francis’s clear and clean approach to the protagonists in his stories stems from his own inability to do anything that compromises his morals in real life. Thirty four year old Derek Franklin is one such character and he shares the same squeaky clean conscience with his creator. The theme is typical of most of Francis’s novels - the transition of society towards materialistic pursuits for remaining happy; drug dealing, racing, gambling, against a commercial backdrop, pitted against the selfless honesty and integrity of the hero Derek Franklin. He takes on his brother’s woes and enemies with the refinement of a monk, accepting of his fate without outward fuss.

To his advantage, there exist, thankfully, others in the story who are similar, if not equally clean in character as Derek. Straight is a first person account, lending propinquity to the story, keeping readers close to the plot. An interesting story, different in the sense that it uses commerce as a backdrop. Interesting read.

Straight - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1989

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Longshot - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1990

John Kendall ‘accepted a commission’ that four writers before him had declined. The travel agent-turned- adventure-guide writer is in dire straits, who is asked to vacate the attic apartment he lives in, and from these circumstances, you can make out that he is desperately in need of a source of income. The first book he wrote was accepted by a publishing house - he took the advance and chose to write a second one – Long Way Home. Not easy, as the creative juices run dry, and writer’s block looms like an ugly cloud over his head. The money is all gone, so when his agent Ronnie Curzon offers him the opportunity to ghost write the memoir of a former horse trainer Tremayne Vickers, he jumps at it, tempted by the prospect of having a roof over his head and food in his belly.

Although he has the limited experience of a survival guide writer (Return Safe From The Wilderness  - six hardcover guides to help the traveler through jungles, deserts, at sea, on ice, or on a safari) - he is determined to take up the project, even though Ronnie advises him otherwise, with a dire warning ‘Impulse will kill you one of these days’ - he looks forward to earning a better living.

On arrival at Shellerton, Berkshire, he is received by Mackie Vickers, Tremayne’s daughter-in-law. In the jeep, he meets the rest of the four connected to the estate - Bob Watson and his wife Ingrid, Fiona and Harry Goodhaven. The air in the vehicle is laden with silence, this changes when suddenly the jeep lands up in a ditch, after skidding. The four travelers were thrown into the freezing water, as Mackie sits at the wheel in a semi conscious state, dazed. The hero saves the hour by transporting all five people back safely to the Estate.

Kendall settles into his new life, cooking meals, hobnobbing with the kids, socializing with the guests-enjoying his stay and turn of fortune. He is introduced to Fiona’s cousin, a jockey with a strange, violent streak - Nolan, who has in the been in deep trouble for strangling a girl in the past year, takes a dislike to John, threatening and publicly attacking the writer. To make things murkier, local Inspector – Doone-  discovers the remains of a stable girl with a colorful past - Angela Brickell, who was strangled.

Soon, John Kendall is drawn into the web of intrigue and corrupt practices, there are attempts made to harm the family - and from the above example, him not being one to be found wanting when danger calls - Kendall wards off the evil eye by fighting to keep the Vickers from unforeseen harm. Why read Dick Francis? Is it for the horses, the stoic heroes who ride off into the sunset…alone or the villains who meet their just desserts? Maybe it is out of a sense of loyalty and admiration for the honest appeal of Francis’s own charm and quiet manner, or even for pretty phrases like still mornings "as rare as honest beggars"!

Knowing his connection with horses, it is somewhat difficult to envision a novel without the beloved equestrians. The narrative, though interesting, is long winded towards the end, and yes, the end is a little maudlin and sad.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Driving Force - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1992

The creation of the character of Freddie Croft was perhaps inspired by Dick Francis’s own real life horse transporting business (or rather, his son's). Freddie Croft is an ex- jockey, who now makes a living transporting thoroughbreds around the UK, and in the EU, in ferries. Croft is an astute businessman, with a roaring enterprise called CROSS RACEWAYS. But even the best make mistakes and do not always lead a charmed life - a lesson Freddie learns the hard way.

Dave Yates and Brett Gardener stand before him, defensively whining it wasn’t their fault, that they had offered a ride to ‘four eyes’ when the truck was empty i.e sans the horses (it would invalidate the contract if they gave a lift while the consignment was on board). His cardinal rule, the only rule he had for them, was broken - and now the two stood like two sheep that have gone astray.

But, even so, things couldn’t have been all that bad - unless…the hitchhiker was to drop down stone cold dead! And, that is what had happened to him - the two men tried to wake him at Newbury. Not the atypical vagabond at the side of the road, as he’d expected, Freddie  thought to himself - the dead man was wearing a suit, his girth told the tale of a life spent pursuing gastronomical delights, his lay there, gold ring and ‘shoes pointing mutely to heaven’. His name, as evident by his credentials in a burgeoning wallet was Kevin Keith Ogden, from Nottingham.

Now, we all know, dead men tell no tales and are no good for business!  To make matters worse, a number of mysterious containers are found under the vehicles. The mechanic who made the discovery ends up being the second corpse. Could it be that Croft’s transport vehicles are being used as carriers for some sort of smuggling? These incidents also endanger Freddie Croft’s life - as he seems to get tangled in a web of deceit, betrayal and insurmountable dangers.

Jogger, Freddie's mechanic, who finds containers attached under many of the transport vans, ends up with a broken neck in the inspection pit. Croft is kidnapped and almost drowned. Freddie also comes to the conclusion that this is bigger than he can single handedly solve - Nina, an investigator from the Jockey Club Security steps in to help him. She is chosen to work undercover in the business. The stakes in this conspiracy are high, and they threaten the existence of both Freddie and his business. Also, he uncovers a sinister plot to kill these precious horses through disease. Another prominent clue is the discovery of strange fluids – his sister, a chopper flying scientist suggests a drug-smuggling angle.

Francis has a way with describing the characters in his book - gay drivers, cockney, diligent policemen,  a chopper flying sister, a lover who is older than Freddie - all add flavor to the colorful landscape of Driving Force. A wonderful narrative, with harrowing details of Freddie Croft’s ordeals whilst battling villains and conspiracies. Dick Francis is a master story teller who engages the reader; if this is your first time read, be prepared to get hooked!

Driving Force - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1992

Sunday, January 26, 2014

To the Hilt - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1996

The 35th in the series of Dick Francis’s horse and race track inspired mysteries; ‘To the Hilt’ is the story of a painter - Alexander Kinloch - a descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the nephew of a Scottish earl. He lives in a ‘bothy’- a shelter used by Highlanders, which is sans electricity and modern amenities, and earns his livelihood by selling his paintings. The land belongs to his Uncle Robert, who likes to be called ‘Himself’- a lovable, humorous and eccentric character.
Al is a sensitive, likable character, slightly scarred from the loss of his father in a shooting accident, and the fact that he must always be the shoulder that bears the mantle of responsibility - adds to the woebegone appeal of the artist, who paints golf courses. Alexander was bequeathed the jewel encrusted ceremonial sword with gold hilt.  And apparently this is the reason why thugs break into his meager home, assault him and demand that he reveals where it is?
But before he is tempted to lick his wounds, Alexander’s mother Vivienne, seeks his help to tend to his ailing step father, Ivan, who has suffered a heart attack. In the aftermath of the sad state of his father’s health, Alexander also learns that the old man’s brewery business has almost shut down, and the finance director has embezzled millions, and has since disappeared. It is now left to Al to put the pieces together, and sort out his parents’ messy business affairs. All this while, Alexander spends his time plagued with thoughts of the mountains and his art.
It is but natural for Dick Francis to add the essential element to all his narratives - the horse. Al is somewhat bemused that Ivan needs his help to ‘hide’ Golden Malt, his stepfather’s steeplechaser, who is to run in the King Alfred Gold Cup; the catch is that Patsy, Al’s stepsister, has designs on the horse herself, and he won’t run, if it were left to her! How Ivan could’ve gathered that Alexander would be the best man to hide the horse - is an idea that has taken root after Uncle ‘Himself’ insinuates that Al is good at this sort of thing (Himself has bequeathed the Hilt in his nephew’s safekeeping). Alexander’s ex - wife is also a rider; he goes onto have an emotional breakthrough with her in due course.
"Men were right to be afraid of women, I concluded," Al thinks at one point, "the witch lived near the surface in all of them." The women characters are either lovable or downright evil – his mother is the former, his step sister the latter. His relationship with Vivienne is interesting, and undergoes a sea change when she finally allows her emotional side to surface at Ivan’s death. He is also the narrator in the story, and makes for a decent story teller with his appealing straight forwardness and kindliness.
‘To the Hilt’ confronts the superficiality of people, no matter where they are placed and what their station in life. Al is the unlikely hero in a vicious situation with exemplary principles and integrity - you could knight him! The moral aspect of right and wrong, heroes and villains – all fall by the way side, it is the theme that peels away at the fa├žade of righteousness which appeals to the readers.

To the Hilt - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1996

Friday, January 24, 2014

10 Lb. Penalty - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1997

"I yearned for the simple life of carefree, reckless speed; the gift given by horses, the gift of skis; and I was beginning to learn, as, everyone has to in the end, that all of life's pleasures have strings attached."

An eighteen year old aspires to be a steeplechase jockey, Benedict Juliard is filled with hope for his bright future, when his dreams are cruelly shattered – he is fired for sniffing glue, at the onset, this seems likely, him being rich and wealthy. The book is a first person account; events are narrated by Benedict Juliard.
On further inquiry it is revealed to him that his father George had a hand to play in the dashing of his ambition.

George Juliard is a businessman, selected as a candidate in the Hoopwestern by-election in Dorset, in place of a sitting MP, now deceased; hoping to leave his mark in the world of politics-his ambition is to stand for Parliament. Being a widower, he wants Ben to step into the role of the son who is ‘terribly nice to people’.

Ben would be a big help in the pre-election campaign for the public office George hopes to gets elected to; he makes his son Benedict enter a pact wherein neither of the two would do anything careless or negligent so as to endanger the former’s political aspirations. Though he may seem cruel and ambitious, George is a man of principles, passing on the opportunity of mudslinging his opponents, and fighting the good fight. He is elected as cabinet minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. His popularity is on an upward spiral and he is liked by the members of his constituency. George now has his eyes set on the prime ministerial seat after a cabinet crisis.

Some years later, rumors of George’s involvement in a crime make the circuit. Ben, now a racing insurance investigator and steeple-chaser of some repute, returns to investigate the source of these rumors, risking his own life in the process. The horses are a backdrop for the father-son relationship - the son’s efforts to keep his father safe from slime infested politicking, arson and evil plotting villains. Young Benedict is the son-sleuth most politician fathers would vie to have! The dead legislator’s wife makes a formidable enemy, coupled with a fierce shooting and car sabotage - it’s a wonder George is still alive!

Even the paparazzo - Basil Rudd, seems conniving and evil, as he keeps appearing in most of the scenes when a mishap is about to fall upon George. Evil sounding names pop up at intervals - Alderney Wyvern, a slippery political operator and three middle-aged campaign volunteers called Faith, Marge and Lavender.
Dick Francis’s 36th novel was inspired after a meeting with the British Prime Minister John Majors at Lords; it is perhaps the most memorable for the characters he created.  A 10 lb. penalty is the maximum weight that can be carried by a horse, it is considered a sure shot way to kill an animal with such heavy load! Perhaps in the book, the image of the horse bearing this great burden is juxtaposed with the young teenager Benedict, weighed down by the responsibility of his father’s purpose driven life.

The book is more about relationships and what we ought to invest in keeping them alive, there is, however, little element of mystery, which may disappoint some of Francis’s fans.

10 Lb. Penalty - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1997

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Field of 13 - Short stories by Dick Francis - Published in 1998

In 1956, Dick Francis, a steeplechase jockey, riding Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse, was in for a win, when mysteriously, it appeared as if the horse were jumping a phantom fence, collapsing 50 yards from the winning post in the Grand National in 1956.

There was no looking back, as the once celebrated and respected jockey, turned his innate sense of the magnificent animal to help him create characters and stories that have captivated readers since the 1960s.
Field of 13 was written in 1998, and is a collection of short stories by this sensitive and insightful author:

1. Raid at Kingdom Hill
This short story first appeared in The Times, 1975. It talks about a bomb scare in a fictional racetrack called Kingdom Hill. What started out as a figment of the Author’s imagination , unfortunately found place in real life, when the 1997 Grand National Steeplechase was halted due to a bomb hoax.

2. Dead on Red
The fast paced story of French hit man Emil Jacques, who targets a jockey Red Millbrook, on behest of a jealous peer Davey Rockman. Jacques is famed in his field and is also a gun collector, hired to kill Red, a famed rider, who stole Rockman’s job.

3. Song for Mona
A mother’s love for horses is the cause for her daughter’s shame and disdain. Mona Watkins loves her animals, this is her livelihood as well as her passion, but is Joanie Vine’s embarrassment, as it hinders her efforts to climb the social ladder.

4. Bright White Star
This story first appeared in Cheshire Life, in 1979.It talks about a tramp and a horse that is stolen on Christmas Eve.

5. Collision Course
The story subtly talks of divine retribution, of how a newspaper editor who has lost his job, earns justice upon a malevolent restaurateur and horse trainer.

6. Nightmare
It first appeared in The Times, 13 April 1974. Story about a horse thief, eluding his past, when his father is killed in the heist.

7. Carrot for a Chestnut
His first short story, written eight years after the debut novel, appeared in Sports Illustrated, in 1970. Chestnut is fed carrots laced with drugs; the jockey is fed a just dessert when he starts to lose concentration and meets with a terrible accident.

8. The Gift
The story first appeared as "A Day of Wine and Roses" in Sports Illustrated, 1973. It is the story about an alcoholic, a former racing writer a pickpocket and a plan to fix the Kentucky Derby.

9. Spring Fever
The story is about unrequited love and the pain of rejection, when a jockey and trainer hatch a plan to embezzle 12000£ from a smitten owner; it first appeared in Women's Own magazine, 1980.

10. Blind Chance
The story first appeared as "Twenty-one Good Men and True" in Verdict of Thirteen: A Detection Club Anthology, 1979. It is about a blind boy who gathers information of how bettors are getting information on races.

11. Corkscrew
The touching story of an honest man charged with a crime he did not commit, whilst his dishonest lawyer swindles the man’s parents out of bail money.

12. The Day of the Losers
It first appeared in Horse and Hound, February 1977. Story of money from an old robbery, police plan to stop a race from getting fixed to catch a crook.

13. Haig's Death
The story of what the outcome will be after a race - the fate of many rests in the hands of the judge.

Field of 13 - Short stories by Dick Francis - Published in 1998