Fiction: “Longshot” by Dick Francis

longshotDick Francis is one of my favorite authors. I actually own all of his original novels (he took a short break after his wife died, and now he’s writing again with his son for a partner; I haven’t read those, and I’m not sure how I feel about them), and Longshot was, I think, the second of his books I read? Possibly third? But it was one of the novels that introduced me to Mr. Francis, and it’s one that I will continue to reread.

The nice thing about Mr. Francis’s works is that, unlike other mystery writers, he doesn’t have one single character that he follows throughout his forty novels (as opposed to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone character, or *shudder* Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta). Instead, he writes one-shot books about one character and one set of problems, and all of his stories in some way are attached to the British racing industry.

For example: the main character in Longshot is John Kendall, a writer. He impulsively agrees to write the biography of Tremayne Vickers, a preeminent racehorse trainer. His decision is primarily based on the fact that it’s February, he’s broke, and the flat he’s currently living in has no heat. So he moves in with the Vickers family and quickly becomes an important part of the family. There’s a quote in the book somewhere (I didn’t feel the need to use my Post-It flags on a Dick Francis novel; silly me) about how Kendall feels as if he’s watching a play that he entered late, that he’s an outsider and not a member.

Kendall began his career as writer of survival guides: How to Survive in the Wilderness, that type of thing. This becomes important as the story continues.

The underlying mystery is that of Angela Brickell, a missing stable lass. She is eventually found, and the question becomes, who killed her? It could be Nolan, an amateur jockey who was recently convicted of accidental manslaughter; it could be Harry, a friend who may have had an affair with the young girl. The inspector cozies up to Kendall specifically because Kendall is such an insider.

The best thing about Dick Francis novels is: when you’re reading in bed, and you think to yourself, “Okay, I’ll finish this chapter and then turn off the light.” Well, guess what – that’s the chapter that will end with a cliffhanger. So make sure you have time to read one additional chapter.

As I’ve said, I’ve read all of Dick Francis’s novels at least once, but Longshot is one of the few I’ve reread more than once. The climactic scene is so intense and visceral … I still remember reading the first time and experiencing the same discomfort that Kendall goes through, staying up even later to make sure everything ended well. One of the few other books where I’ve had a similar experience was Dr. No – that’s a funny story.

Longshot starts off slow with not a lot of tension, but once the Angela Brickell mystery starts up for reals, it escalates until you can’t put it down. I’m sure I’ll read this one again.

Grade for Longshot: 3 stars


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