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 façade 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

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Decider - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1993

The ‘Decider’ is Lee Morris, a thirty five year old architect and builder, who likes to take up restoration projects; his current project is a huge barn house which belongs to his family, which consists of six kids and his wife. Amanda and Lee were married when they were nineteen, high school sweethearts. Over time the two, though living together, have become estranged, putting up a brave front for the boys sake, and respectfully keeping to having civil relations with each other.

It is Easter week, and the family is staying in a converted bus camper, after Amanda insists that Lee and the boys enjoy some time out with each other. The family isn’t prepared to face a violent and confrontational Holy Week, given that they are all fun loving, out doors type, good people.

In the meantime, the manager of the race course - Roger Gardner, makes an offer to Lee that he should help in the modernization and renovation of the racetrack - this despite the fact that the Strattons are conflicted over wanting to sell, renovate or leave the race course the way it is. He has a holding in the Stratton Park Racecourse, whose ownership is conflicted – Lee’s mother had married and divorced Lord Stratton’s son, and part of the racecourse stock came to be hers in the settlement after the divorce. The manager wants   Lee to use his shares to keep the race course running. Keith was the race course owner’s son, hyper abusive and violent, he raped Lee’s mother, after which a girl was born, whom the mother abandoned.

Keith’s father sympathized with his daughter-in-law and gives her a stake in Stratton Park; now with the old man dead - the Strattons want nothing more than to throw Lee out like a runt from the litter. The Strattons are a formidable bunch, they are keen to cheat Lee out of his part of the stock, and when the latter attends a shareholders’ meeting with his five older sons, he is assaulted and beaten - a grim warning that he should relinquish his hold over the racecourse. The slimiest of the lot are Lee’s mother’s ex husband - Keith and Marjorie Binsham, Keith’s aunt.

The worst happens when an explosion occurs in the grandstands of Stratton Park; but not before one of the kids sees explosive charges wired through the stands - he alerts Lee, who tries to get the crowd to vacate, everyone, save the nine year old son, leaves in panic, the bombs explode, thankfully, the child is unhurt.

Lee realizes he is now part of a mysterious conspiracy and has to fight to save his family from unknown sources that are threatening the children’s security. Lee is a dependable sort of guy, balanced and secure, physically well built and mentally very strong as well. He hates being dragged into this family feud, and wants nothing more than to solve the problems of Stratton Park and move on.

Readers rate the 33rd novel of Dick Francis as the best. Unlike most of his other books, The Decider is more family oriented, readers will love Lee for his sensitive dad character, they will ache for Amanda and him to be united, believing strongly that there is love after all those years together. A good read if you like family drama, mystery, intrigue as well as a slight romantic angle in your books!

Decider - Authored by Dick Francis - Published in 1993

Wild Horses - Authored by Dick Francis - Released in 1994

Dick Francis’s 33rd novel is a story about Thomas Lyon, a former steeplechase jockey, turned film director. Lyon is shooting a film, starring an American movie star, based on a best seller about the mysterious death of a young horse trainer’s wife Sonya Wells - whether she was murdered or actually committed suicide by hanging - remains unknown. The book is based on the actual occurrence, in which the woman was found deceased - it is a twenty six year old cold police case.

Now, her sister, niece and nephew are obstructing the shooting of the film, whilst the author of the book it is based on is concerned about ensuring that the film maker is not tampering with the original plot. Meanwhile, in the midst of the filming, Lyon’s friend Valentine Clark, a racing columnist by trade, passes away, with Thomas at his bedside; as luck would have it, Clark, in his state of delirium, mistakes Lyon for a priest, and makes a death bed confession. He also bequeaths to Thomas his wealth of articles and racing books - apparently priceless, as a lot of people want to get their hands on them - and the fact that Lyon is in possession of these is miffing many people around - they stop at nothing and can stoop to any extent to get the books, on one instance, assaulting Dorothea, Clark’s elderly sister.

Why is Lyon interested in making this particular film? It is because Jackson Wells, Rupert Visborough (her brother-in-law) and Valentine Clark were acquaintances. After Sonya’s death, the two men -Jackson and Rupert were dismissed from the Jockey Club, putting an end to their budding careers. When Thomas Lyon approaches the producer of the film O’Hara, the latter and Lyon both agree that it could be a shot at solving the woman’s mysterious death, they could actually come up with theories and clues that would clear Jackson and Rupert’s names.

But someone wants the filming to stop immediately, he/she seems to understand the intention behind unraveling the death; in a bid to warn Lyon’s, the actor’s double is attacked, another murder is committed - this time the victim is Clark’s nephew, and Thomas is blatantly given death threats, and even stabbed in the market place. So what did Clarks confess which has sent Thomas Lyon’s in a state? It seems that the old man, mistaking Lyon for a priest, sought absolution for his guilt for having killed someone some years ago.

A different read from most other books of Francis, this one plays on the human aspect of relationships, of how the past can cloud the present. For instance, Sonya wasn’t the loving wife everyone believed her to be, neither was Clark’s nephew, Dorothea’s son the martyr for having looked after his mother all those years. He does however redeem himself in the readers’ minds for having died saving his mother when goons break into her home. On the other hand, Jackson, whose life has been a whole mess for a long, long time, actually found true love and lived happily ever after. Even the fact that Valentine Clarks may have been a killer, makes one feel sorry for him - to have lived an entire lifetime with such guilt-ridden thoughts, painful!

A good read for anyone who enjoys a tear jerker and admires heroes who ‘keep ticking despite getting a constant licking’!

Wild Horses - Authored by Dick Francis - Released in 1994

Monday, January 20, 2014

Come to Grief - By Dick Francis - Released in 1995

John Sidney Halley or Sid Halley makes his last appearance after three books, in Come To Grief (other books - Odds Against, Whip in Hand, Under Orders). A former jockey turned PI, he seems physically unassuming, and that he has a prosthetic hand is something that no one would ever notice.

It is this façade that manages to keep under wraps the brilliant mind he has for espionage, computer hacking, even martial arts - he is never found wanting in danger. But there is a fun side to him as well - like the gambling machine he keeps in his room; he is sensitive as well, gifting a poor cancer-ridden child a fish to keep her company.

Working with horses since he was fifteen, he won championships, however he also tragically crippled his left hand - it was further damaged by a villainous character, and resulted in its amputation. Although he never seems to grudge the accident openly, he does feel bitter within about his loss.

Sid’s friendship with Ellis Quint, also a former jockey, is his solace. Ellis is now a well known chat show host with a huge fan following. On the other hand, he also befriends Rachel, who is suffering from leukemia. She has lost her thorough-bred Silverboy, who was mercilessly mutilated - this gives the child nightmares.

Unbeknownst to Sid, Ellis has a dirty secret; he enjoys torturing and mutilating animals, as a cover up, it is Quint himself who sheds light on these horrific acts, making it known that the killings happen around the full moon. The animals’ front left hooves are amputated, repeatedly on a full moon, for months together - Sid bizarrely mirrors this with loss of his own  left hand.

Sid Halley steps in, and the facts are horrifying, he must implicate his best friend in this crime - and as a result, the media, police and community are all up in arms against Halley, given Quint’s popularity. He must quell his own doubts about the kind of man Ellis is, the fact that the two are like brothers and best of friends - he has an uphill task convincing even himself of his friend’s crime! The only thing that keeps him going is his friendship for Rachel and the many owners whose blameless horses have borne the brunt of sheer cruelty.

As a result of all the bloodshed, Sid has nightmares about his ghost limb, and the hand he has left. Despite attempts made on his life, he fights to bring the perpetrator to justice. The book opens with a court scene, where the trial of Ellis Quint is about to begin. The chief witness for prosecution is Sid, testifying against his friend. All the events are in flashback.

Sid has a strong case built up against Quint, but the law prevents him from discussing the case with the media or in public, since it is sub judice. Taking advantage of his silence, yellow journalism has a field day, especially vicious in its treatment is a tabloid called The Pump. Sid traces its vitriolic outburst against him, back to a relationship between Ellis and tabloid’s owner, a business tycoon. And then there is a horrific scene where Sid is caught and in danger of being killed.

The novel won an Edgar  and Silver Dagger for Francis, a must read, though best avoided by adolescents!

Come to Grief - By Dick Francis - Released in 1995