Friday, July 25, 2014

Even Money (Published in 2009) - Sudden appearance of a father - Authored by Dick Francis and Felix Francis

Ned Talbot has a clear perspective of who is, rather who he is perceived to be - a pariah. The sort of creature that makes for the underbelly of the racetrack - a bookie. The closet snobbery and class divide is obvious, stock broking is white collar, whereas punters socializing with bookies is strictly a ‘NO’. Ned and his assistant Luca are able to make decent profits and sizeable losses as they ply their trade at Royal Ascot and other small racecourses. A second generation bookie, he has seen the trade descend into depravity - from being an art form, almost where transactions were written in books, to the paper emitting computer – bookies are now less known for honor, better known for their sly, wily ways.
His mundane numbed existence is jolted out of its seasoned normality, when a man claiming to be his father, meets him at the parking lot at the Ascot. Ned is shocked, he grew up with his grandfather, who told him his parents had died in a car crash - so who is this man, really, claiming to be his father? Where had been all these years? Why had he chosen to show up now - seven years and two days after the old man’s death? His mind is a mess - he has never met his father for thirty seven years, has believed that the only family he has is now dead, yet here is this man, claiming to be his parent!
And so Edward ‘Ned’ Talbot is reunited with Peter James Talbot, his father. Peter tells him that he had panicked when Ned’s mother died in the crash, and in typical teenage fashion, had bolted in the opposite direction - to Australia. As Peter is filling the blanks in Ned’s life, telling him he has two half sisters, they walk down an alley. The sound of footsteps rings alarm bells, he’d had a bad day at the races - why would anyone follow him to steal from him?




The duo are mugged, and even though Ned throws an envelope with money towards the men - it simply lies untouched on the grass, so does his father - who has been stabbed in the stomach. Peter dies in the emergency room. Orphaned twice over, Ned is numb with shock, which deepens when the investigating officer tells him that contrary to the information the man has shared with them regarding his ‘father’ - the credentials the dead man has speak otherwise; his credit card and driver’s license have on them the name Alan  Charles Grady.
The police are mistrustful of Ned, shadowing him as he visits Sophie, his wife in hospital, who is being treated for bipolar disorder;  his mind is plagued with questions, as he wonders how and why his ‘father’ could’ve landed them all in such a mess? When he goes to the hotel where his father had rented a room, Ned finds thirty thousand pounds in cash, a device that resembles a remote control, counterfeit horse papers, and a polythene bag containing something that resembles grains of rice, but on closer look is frosted glass. Despite all the depressing events in his life, Ned is rewarded with a happy ending - where he is reunited with his sisters, and both he and Sophie look forward to parenthood!
Dick and Felix Francis have researched well, the Senior Francis is gifted with years of experience as a steeplechase jockey and Felix has almost effortlessly managed to melt into the style of writing adopted by his father - this seamless narration is the strength of Even Money. Excellent read!

Even Money (Published in 2009) - Sudden appearance of a father - Authored by Dick Francis and Felix Francis

Second Wind (Published in 1999) - Authored by Dick Francis, not about horses

What is most enthralling and refreshing about Dick Francis is the ease with which he introduces myriad backdrops for his story telling, all well founded on his equine love and past as a steeplechase jockey. Second Wind is the story about a meteorologist Perry Stuart, who, along with his friend Kris Ironside, work for the BBC. He lives with and loves his grandmother, who offers clear, sensible advice from time to time – ‘If you can’t fix it, think of something else.’
The two men fly in Kris’s Piper Cherokee, a single engine low winged aeroplane, almost as old as the friends - thirty. Their destination is the Jockey Club. This camaraderie extends to the workplace as well, and the two are sent on an assignment to Trox Island, where the men are to chase a category 5 hurricane - Odin! His grandmother confesses she has a premonition which doesn’t augur well for Perry, however, against good sense prevailing, the meteorologist sets about to leave for Florida.
Kris and Perry stay with friends in the Grand Cayman, another friend offers to lend them his plane - having flown with success, Kris is confident of making the trip to and fro - with no possibility of any danger. He however, doesn’t share the details of the route - Perry finds out why when Kris sheepishly confesses that he is also running an errand for the couple they’re staying with; Stuart would have to photograph mushrooms grown on Trox Island where their hosts own a farm.




When they arrive at the Island, they are surprised when they encounter no human beings, just a whole bovine herd greets them. The weather is also taking a turn for the worse, and so they decide to head back - they set off in the middle of the storm. On the way, one of the engines stalls and as luck would have it - their plane plunges into the waters below. Kris in a life boat, and Perry in a life jacket - adrift on the waters.
Stuart is washed up on the shore of an abandoned island where most of the habitation is destroyed by Odin. In a hut, he comes across a mysterious file and a Geiger Counter (used to measure radiation). He is later rescued by a team, all of which are dressed in radiation protective gear. He learns that much of the Island’s population was wiped off by a disease caused by unpasteurized milk. Back in England, Perry finds out that there is a sinister plot to ship uranium to undisclosed parties who crave the mineral for terrorist activities; involved are the couple he stayed with on the Grand Cayman.
Armed with knowledge that seeks to harm the vested interests of the evil rich, Stuart realizes his life is in danger, as another plane he’s on is sabotaged. His 40th novel received mixed reviews, with a majority criticizing Dick for giving a miss to his usual equine based narrative. Second Wind comes in gasping for breath just like the name suggests, you could read it for sheer fondness of Francis!

Second Wind (Published in 1999) - Authored by Dick Francis, not about horses

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Silks (Published in 2008) - Authored by Dick Francis and Felix Francis - Barrister under pressure

Strange that the very barrister defending the criminal, becomes turncoat and condemns the man. Or a little bit like that. The young criminal has been unsuccessful in defending himself against the allegations, rather it would seem as if Mason has failed to rescue the defendant - he however, speaks his mind out loud and contrary to what a defense counsel must do in court in keeping with his client’s image - he does the opposite. Geoffrey Mason tells the court that the only reason why he chose to defend Julian Trent was because he had to. And so, the charming, rich and violence loving Julian Trent is sentenced to eight years in prison - held guilty on eight counts, four of them for assault, three for inflicting serious injury and  one of attempted murder.
True, Mason would have rather been out of number 3 court at the Old Bailey, racing his twelve year old bay gelding in the Foxhunter Steeplechase, hailed by amateur riders as the Gold Cup. Flashback - Geoffrey had wanted to become a jockey, he had ‘fallen in love’ with steeplechasing as a teenager, and had thought he’d spend his life riding horses. His equine ambitions were dashed when his father suggested that he join the family law firm as a solicitor; his clever mind and brains become the undoing of his ambition, so, being a solicitor it is.
All that was in common amongst the two distinct professions was the presence of Silk - both jockeys and barristers wore the fabric to work! He does relive some of the passion at the racetrack at Sandown, where his barrister’s wig is set aside for racing silks! His father also suggested he remain single, he’d achieves that status seven years after his marriage is over - his pregnant wife dead.




Present day - His sense of accomplishment is short lived as the clerk informs him that Julian Trent’s sentencing has been overturned, the brat intimidated three jurors and they were coerced into changing their minds. Using his immense influence, Trent is able to pull the right strings to get out of the prison mess. Also, top jockey Steve Mitchell wants Mason to defend him, as he is now accused in the killing of another famous jockey Hamish ‘Scot’ Barlow.
Despite the evidence piled up against Trent, he is out, and gets his hands on Geoffrey the minute he is able to, beating him silly with a baseball bat. Threatening the solicitor that unless he aids in the conviction of Mitchell, his dad and girlfriend will both be killed! Also, Mitchell is in a real soup, he’s had an affair with Barlow’s sister Millie, a vet. She later committed suicide after a lethal intake of animal tranquilizer, not found in her clinic. His betting slips are stuck to the pitchfork with which Scot was murdered. Obviously, the circumstantial evidence is damning!
Silks is co - written by Dick’s son Felix; it is a well researched book, given the number of legal references in the story - from the Magna Carta to the present day legal system. The twenty one chapters are divided into three parts – Murder, Arrest, Remand (chapters 1-6), Disclosure (chapters 7-9), Trial and Punishment (chapters 10-21). A happy twist to the tale is that Mason actually gets the girl of his dreams, at the end of the story, unlike many of Francis’s heroes. Also the killer is one closer to home, yet well concealed enough to go unnoticed.

Silks (Published in 2008) - Authored by Dick Francis and Felix Francis - Barrister under pressure

Monday, July 21, 2014

Crossfire (published in 2010) - A collaboration between Dick Francis and his son, Felix Francis

Talk about adding insult to injury, not only does Capt. Thomas Vincent Forsyth lose his foot in an IED blast in Afghanistan, he now has to share a roof with his mother and stepfather at their home in Lambourn, with whom he has been at odds for the past fifteen years. Choosing the army way, he ran away from home at the age of seventeen, slept on the stairs of the army recruiting office in Oxford and was commissioned as a private in the Grenadier Guards; today, he returns to the grim prospect of the future as a disabled war veteran of the British Army.
Although her son has been wounded, and has lost the use of his leg, yet Thomas’s mother - Josephine Kauri - is in an extremely foul mood. She is not known as the ‘first lady of British racing’ for nothing. Thomas finds out the reason for his mother’s rancor soon enough - her horses have been losing at the races, and what with taxes and debts mounting, the lady wonders how long it will be before she loses everything. To make matters worse, she has been defaulting on payment of her taxes, using the money to invest in fraudulent hedge funds, avoiding payment of the VAT as well.
Add to this the fact that she’s been caught - and now along with the other expenses has to also pay an anonymous blackmailer two thousand pounds to keep quiet. Her husband is listless and inert, a mute spectator as she tries to salvage her financial position in vain. Thomas has been fitted with a prosthetic leg, but since the injury is still so recent, he suffers from ghost limb, he is not able to get used to the artificial leg and is constantly obsessing about whether or not he will ever be able to join the army again.





He is embroiled, soon, in his parents’ woebegone finances, and takes it upon himself to trace the source of the blackmail. And so, our one man army prepares for a different sort of battle, well camouflaged and armed with his trusty ceremonial army sword. His quest leads him to the manor house of his childhood love Isabella. Everyone at the dinner in her home is under the scanner, as the Captain uses his skills from the battlefields to help him sniff out the blackmailer. As his independent investigation progresses, someone wants him dead or at least in the least interfering of positions. Thomas is kidnapped and imprisoned in an abandoned stable - reminiscent of Francis’s own physical discomforts such as the collarbone fractured twelve times - however, after a harrowing experience, Thomas manages to escape.
Francis retired from the races at 36, and wrote his first novel in 1962. He has to his credit almost forty books and has won accolades such as The Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1970 & 198o, to name a few. He was declared the Commander of the British Empire in 2000. The book is dedicated to the memory of Dick Francis; he died in the year 2010, also the year of Crossfire’s release, his final novel - the fourth written in collaboration with his physicist son Felix Francis.

Crossfire (published in 2010) - A collaboration between Dick Francis and his son, Felix Francis

Friday, July 18, 2014

Under Orders (Published in 2006) - Written by Dick Francis - Another Sid Halley adventure

Sid Halley makes his fourth appearance in Dick Francis’s Under Orders. Born out of wedlock, apprenticed to a Newmarket racing trainer, he held the esteemed status of champion jockey – five odd years in a row. Now divorced from Jenny, his state of forced bachelorhood has lasted ten years. Sid lost the use of his left hand in two serious incidents - the first was an accident involving a horse, the second a deliberate intent to hurt. He now has an electronically charged prosthetic hand, which he has slowly grown attached to! Rear Admiral (retd) Charles Rowland may be his former father in law, yet the two men are great friends despite their many differences, including age and profession. On one particularly windy, gray morning, the two head for the Cheltenham Races, where the Gold Cup for amateur riders is in progress.
As he is hobnobbing with ex jockeys and the media, attention is brought to the screams for help – a lady sobs by her husband, as he lies lifeless – all efforts to resuscitate him are fruitless - sad end for a man whose horse just came in first. Sid makes his way to the grandstand where Charles and Lord Enstone are awaiting his arrival. The latter is concerned that the reason why his horses aren’t doing well is because someone is fixing the races. Shortly after, another jockey Huw Walter and his horse are also found dead. Huw, it was believed had been involved in shady deals, his boss and trainer Bill Burton – is suspected of the murder. This sad death happens within hours of Walter’s having won the coveted Triumph Hurdle.




However, when Bill is also found murdered in his home, he is off the list of suspects; the local police try and piece together a theory that he may have committed suicide after being ridden with guilt over Huw’s murder. Sid doesn’t buy the theory. Himself a private investigator of some repute, he finds it hard to believe that such a thing could transpire, believing there to be a common hand in all deaths. Amidst this entirely distressing and depressing scenario enters Marina van der Meer, a Dutch beauty and force multiplier in changing Sid’s status from single divorced male to his status changing to committed. Marina is also embroiled in the dangers of Sid’s sleuthing, as she is shot in her leg. Charles’s dire warning comes to his mind that while the villains can’t harm Sid’s prosthetic arm, they’d harm his near and dear ones.
It turns out that Lord Enstone’s estranged son Peter and his partner Juliet may have something to do with all this ruckus, after all it is no secret that the boy hates his father. In a bid to harm Sid, Peter tries stabbing him, but is hurt in the bargain - maybe in need of an artificial limb at the end of the encounter! All’s well that ends well, for Marina and Sid get hitched.
Dick Francis has the innate ability to mix crime thrillers and horse racing. A deserving awardee for the Crime Writers Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger, Francis paints in Sid the quintessential caricature of a man committed to his principles and belief in the general good, despite having gone through demanding odds in his own personal as well as professional life.

Under Orders (Published in 2006) - Written by Dick Francis - Another Sid Halley adventure

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Shattered (published in 2000) - Written by Dick Francis, another murder investigation

Gerard Logan is justifiably distraught. Martin Stukely, Priam Jones, Lloyd Baxter and Gerard had driven to the Cheltenham races, it’s New Year’s Eve, 1999. Sadly, of the four, only three men return. Martin loses his life when his mount crushes him in the race. The jockey Stukely and professional glass blower Logan (proprietor Logan Glass) had first met in a jury room, and although they had little in common, the men came to enjoy and shared a great camaraderie. But now, Martin is dead.
Gerard owns a charming glass art studio in a picturesque part of the Cotswold. He earns a decent living selling art to tourists and locals.
As the remaining three friends leave the racecourse, they are met with Eddie Payne, Stukely’s valet, who hands over a videotape to Gerard, telling him that Martin had planned on giving him the tape after the races.
On his way from work at his art studio, Gerard decides to stop by at a local pub, leaving the tape in the studio - bad idea. In his absence, the place is ransacked and the tape stolen. Also, Martin’s widow – Bon-Bon suffers the same fate, as her home is raided. Gerard is assaulted in his studio a few days later, the masked men demand that he disclose the whereabouts of the tape to them - funny, didn’t they have it already? When he does get his hands on the tape, Logan is shocked to see Ed (the valet), his daughter Rose and wily bookie Norman Osprey in the film - there is a fourth person present, whom Gerard cannot recognize.




Later, Logan finds out that the fourth entity is one Dr. Adam Force, described to be ‘a very plausible con man.’ The doctor has stolen audio visual material related to cancer research, a priceless boon to many sufferers. Could the tape be the one with all these goodies in it? Gerard almost gets killed many times over in the process of finding out! There are a million questions on his mind - why would the trespassers steal every single videotape in the Stuckely home? Why should they believe that he, Gerard, is aware of the tape’s possessor?
In the end, Gerard chooses to honor Martin’s memory by creating a trophy - a horse leaping over a crystal ball - featured on the cover of the hardback version of Shattered. The villains in the story are indefatigable, especially Rose Payne. Kudos to Dick Francis for his range of characters - Michelin starred chefs, solicitors, meteorologists, and now a professional glass blower. Like all of Francis’s characters in the main lead, Gerard is drawn into reluctant heroism and triumphs, but is self effacing and therefore makes no fuss over his heroism!
The story is interesting, holds the readers imagination for quite a bit, although the equine backdrop is somewhat subtle, the only reference made to horses and racing – begins and end with Martin Stuckely’s fateful death. Shattered, sadly, the fortieth book, would be his last with wife Mary, who died shortly after the release of the novel. He dedicated Shattered to England’s Queen Mother on her hundredth birthday; incidentally, Francis had served as jockey to her and Queen Elizabeth as well.

Shattered (published in 2000) - Written by Dick Francis, another murder investigation

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bloodline (Published in 2012) - Authored by Felix Francis, continuing with legacy of Dick Francis

In Bloodline, Mark Shillingford is a television commentator, and his twin sister Claire (the number of twins in Francis’ stories is mind boggling!) is a famous steeplechase jockey. Mark covers horse races, in most of which Claire is riding. On one such occasion, he brings to the notice of the audience that Claire deliberately lost a race, though this went unnoticed, supposedly, by many present. Angry that Mark should tell the world so, Claire and he have an angry exchange over a tension ridden meal later. Claire tells him that it isn’t such a grand deal, admitting that she has done so four or five times earlier. Leaving in a huff, the two return to their respective homes - when Mark arrives at his, the ID on the display of his phone tells him its Claire; anticipating more anger, he doesn’t answer her call. When he does choose to listen in - there is only silence from the other end, so he hangs up.
Several hours later, she is dead, plunging fifteen stories down to her death from the balcony of the Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, central London. Mystery surrounds her death - did she jump or was she pushed? Why was she in a hotel in Park Lane, after having mentioned to Mark that she was, infact, heading for their home in Newmarket? The police support the suicide theory, insisting it makes sense after reading the note found in Claire’s room. Their father is cold and distant, sinking into the oblivion of gloom and anger after his daughter’s tragic demise. Only Mark seems hell bent on getting to the bottom of the conspiracy (if any) and wants to fight for justice for Claire.




Delving into the dark mystery, Mark uncovers a sinister plot dealing with fixing races; this supports his theory that Claire had no intention of killing herself. On the other hand, a yellow scribe writes a piece about Claire, being nasty and unkind to her to say the least, insinuating that Mark too has some murky skeletons in his closet. Later Toby Woodley, the rake writer, is found knifed to death; obviously, the police suspect Mark to have a hand. Later Mark discovers that Claire was a victim of blackmailing – her trainers and members of the equestrian fraternity seem involved.
The best aspect of the Francis duo is that the novels are simple narratives - not long winded and plagued with equine jargon. However one point to be made is that Felix has to learn to create male characters that respect women - Mark seems to bed them first, and as an afterthought enquire about their lives much later. The race fixing plot has been the discussed in Dick Francis’s other novels as well, but Felix Francis seems to rely heavily on it. Although Felix lacks his late father’s insight into the world of equestrian sport, yet has the requisite charm of storytelling given the fact that he co authored four novels with Dick, and of course, genes matter, too!
The book is the second solo attempt for Felix to keep the memory of his father alive - and although the Sr. Francis penned almost more than forty novels, his legacy seems to be in safe hands in the future!

Bloodline (Published in 2012) - Authored by Felix Francis, continuing with legacy of Dick Francis