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.