Saturday, May 15, 2021
Over a career that spanned forty-four years, from 1962 to 2006, Dick Francis wrote forty novels as a solo author and four of them featured Sid Halley, a former jockey who had become a private investigator. This is the last of the forty novels and the last to feature Sid Halley, which is, I think, an appropriate way for both Sid Halley and his creator to bow out.
For those who haven't made his acquaintance, Halley was a champion jockey until he had a horrendous racing accident that cost him is left hand. He was fitted with a prosthetic, but obviously his racing career was over. Halley found a second career as a private investigator and established a reputation as a tough, honest, intelligent operator. The cases he takes often involve the world of horseracing.
Such is the case here. A British lord named Enstone is concerned that his horses seem to be underperforming, losing races that they should be winning. He asks Halley to investigate to see if, for some reason, someone is causing them to lose. At the same time, Halley accepts another case in which he is asked to investigate the relatively new business of on-line betting as it affects the horse racing industry.
Halley barely gets started with the investigation before a jockey who often rides for Lord Enstone is shot to death at a racecourse. The police fairly quickly settle on a suspect that Halley believes to be innocent and so he turns his attention to the murder as well. As things progress, they get increasingly complicated and increasingly dangerous, not just for Sid Halley but for those he cares most about.
This is an interesting novel for a couple of reasons. Halley, who has long been divorced, is in a new relationship with a woman named Marina, and she looks like she might finally be the one for Halley. Their relationship is a key part of the novel. Additionally, the book relies heavily on DNA evidence, which was still in its infancy when this book was written. Apparently the police in Britain are not using it in any significant way yet, but fortunately, Marina works in a lab where the new techniques are being used for other purposes and so Halley is able to rely on the lab for help in investigating the case. There's plenty of action in the novel and a lot of twists and turns. If I were to make any complaint about the book, it would be that the villain of the piece does not measure up to the standard that Francis set in so many of his earlier books, and doesn't really seem to be an opponent worthy of Sid Halley.
Under Orders is certainly not the best of the Francis novels, but it's still a pretty good book to go out on, and this, then, completes my assignment of reading and reviewing all of the Dick Francis novels. Francis would go on to write a couple of other books in concert with his son, Felix, and Felix Francis has now taken over the franchise. For a variety of reasons, I have no interest in reading books in a series that I have thoroughly enjoyed when the original author dies or passes the baton to someone else. The sole exception to this rule is that of Ace Atkins who has taken over Robert B. Parker's Spenser series and who is doing an excellent job with it.
Given that, I have not and will not be reading any "Dick Francis" novels written by anyone else, his son included. The forty novels written by Francis himself, with the assistance of his wife Mary who was his principal researcher, are more than sufficient as far as I'm concerned.
Monday, February 15, 2021
Owen Laukannen’s new book, The Wild is aimed at a young adult audience, but it’s certainly smart and sophisticated enough to appeal to a lot of adult readers as well.
The protagonist is a seventeen-year-old girl named Dawn who has suffered an emotional trauma and has made some very bad decisions in consequence. She can’t stand the man her mother recently married; she’s run away from home several times; she’s abusing drugs, and she’s moved in with a drug dealer who’s nearly old enough to be her father. And at that point, her mother and stepfather basically kidnap her and send her off to Out in the Wild, a “wilderness therapy program for troubled youth.”
Boot camp would be more like it. The “therapy” involved here centers on marching a group of troubled teenagers through the woods and up and down steep mountain trails, in cold, miserable weather, with no comforts at all—not even so much as a backpack and a tent—unless and until you can earn them.
Dawn is issued a tarp, some water, and a bare minimum of food and is sent off with several of her fellow campers on a forced march under the supervision of two “counselors,” whose sole approach to “therapy,” is to drive the kids to exhaustion and, apparently, to break down their resistance to authority.
Dawn’s fellow hikers turn out to be a mixed bag of kids, some of whom are emotionally disturbed while others who simply mean and violent and probably belong in prison rather than in a wilderness program. And it’s clear going in that trouble is going to follow.
Dawn is a very sympathetic protagonist, and Laukkanen moves the action along briskly with short, fast-paced chapters that keep the reader turning from one page to the next. By implication, Out in the Wild is a pretty suspect organization, and it’s hard to imagine how the program they offer would ever actually benefit anyone, save for the people who are making money by convincing parents to enroll their children in this program.
I’m a huge fan of Laukkanen’s earlier novels, which have been aimed at an adult audience, and while reading The Wild, I found myself thinking repeatedly about his book, The Stolen Ones, which is not only an excellent thriller but an eye-opening examination of the sex trade business. I wish he would have had the opportunity here to more thoroughly examine the entire “boot camps for kids” industry, but I imagine that probably wouldn’t have been appropriate in a book designed for younger readers.
Even as an adult, I was pulled along by the book’s propulsive pace; I can only imagine how quickly I would have been turning the pages had I read this at the age of fifteen or so. All in all, this is another excellent novel from Laukkanen who has conveniently solved the problem of what I will be getting my teenage nieces and nephews for their birthdays this year.
Saturday, February 13, 2021
This is an excellent stand-alone novel from Adrian McKinty, who is also the author of the Sean Duffy crime novels, a series which is among my very favorites. The protagonist here is a woman named Rachel O'Neill who has been having a very bad run of luck. Her husband has left her for a younger woman and she's been ill with cancer. Then, on a morning when it appears that her cancer may be returning, Rachel gets the worst news a parent could possibly imagine: her thirteen-year-old daughter, Kylie, has been kidnapped.
Inevitably, of course, a voice on the phone tells Rachel not to contact the authorities. But in addition to demanding a monetary ransom, Rachel is told that in order to get her own daughter back, she must kidnap someone else's child and hold that child until the parents agree to pay a ransom and kidnap a victim of their own. Rachel, Kylie, and the other parents ensnared in this trap are now a part of The Chain, a devious criminal conspiracy that perpetuates itself and enriches its developers, by forcing ordinary citizens to do the unconscionable work of kidnapping children. Should Rachel or anyone else break the chain, they and their children will be killed.
Like the other victims of the chain, Rachel, a moral, upstanding, law-abiding citizen, is forced to confront the question of how far she is willing to go to protect her own child. And the answer, of course, is that she will do literally anything.
This is one of those stories that grabs the reader from the opening page and refuses to let go. It's also a variant on the theme of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and forced to save themselves and their loved ones. Part of the book's power is that, in watching Rachel react, the reader is forced to imagine how he or she would behave under similar circumstances.
The Chain requires a fairly healthy suspension of disbelief, especially as the book reaches its explosive climax, but I was so caught up in the story that I didn't even stop to think about that until after I had finished reading it. I suspect that a lot of readers will have the same reaction, and that, also like me, they will be up late into the night, turning the pages of this one.
Wednesday, February 3, 2021
Set in the New York City of 1799, this novel introduces Justice (Justy) Flanagan who has just returned to America after graduating from law school in Ireland. Several years earlier, in the wake of the new nation's first financial panic in 1792, Justy discovered his father's body. The father had apparently hanged himself after suffering serious losses in the panic. While in Europe, Justy also spent some time studying the developing science of criminology, and he returns to New York convinced that his father was actually murdered. Justy is determined to find the killer.
The search will take him across the city, both geographically and socially, bringing him into contact with the destitute who inhabit the worst neighborhoods in the developing city, the gangsters and other thugs who roam the waterfront and control the city's vice, and the elite movers and shakers who run the city. A number of historical figures, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and others appear, along with a wide variety of invented and very well-imagined fictional characters.
In searching for his father's killer, Justy will run afoul of some very dangerous characters from both ends of the economic and social spectrums, and it's a lot of fun watching the inventive ways in which he copes with them. But the real joy of this book lies in the author's portrayal of New York City in the later 1790s. Hirsch has clearly done a great deal of research on the topic and the reader feels as if he or she has actually been transported back to the time and place. This is a book that should appeal to large numbers of readers who enjoy historical fiction, thrillers, or both.
Sunday, January 31, 2021
This is a collection of thirteen short stories that were originally published in a diverse number of newspapers and magazines, including Sports Illustrated and The Times of London. Most are set in the UK, but a couple are set here in the U.S. Virtually all of them have a connection of some sort to the world of horse racing.
The stories are very well-crafted and in most cases involve a twist of fate that leaves someone's carefully-laid plans in ruins. They are populated by a lot of grifters and innocent victims, and there's a fair amount of wry humor running through them as well. The stories have held up very well over the years, and this collection should appeal to a lot of readers as well as to fans of Dick Francis, who certainly should not miss this one.
Monday, January 25, 2021
After muddling around a bit in the first two books, Robert Crais begins to hit his stride with the third entry in the Elvis Cole series. He's dialed back the constant--and what I thought was often inappropriate--humor and produced a fairly gripping novel. The humor hasn't disappeared, to be sure, but in this book it's not nearly as jarring.
The case seems pretty straightforward, at least initially. Elvis is introduced to a big league movie director named Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson is awfully full of himself and comes off as a total jerk. Years ago, he was briefly married and fathered a son. But he decided that being a husband and father really didn't suit him and so he abandoned his wife and child. The wife divorced him and disappeared with the son. Nelson has heard nothing of either of them in years.
Now he decides that he really wants to meet his son and he hires Cole to find the boy and his mother. Nelson is such a jerkoff that Cole almost refuses to work for him. But Nelson does seem sincere in his desire to meet the boy and so Elvis reluctantly agrees.
Finding the woman and her son is really no problem at all. But once having found her, Cole discovers that she's mixed up in some very serious trouble. This is another case where I think that the tease on the back of the book gives away way too much, and I'm not going to go there. Suffice it to say that Cole decides that he needs to attempt to extricate the woman from her problems before notifying his client that he's completed his mission. This will get Cole himself into some serious danger, and before it's all over, a lot of blood is going to get spilled. A very good read with a great climax.
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
First published in 1953, this is a novel in the classic pulp school. A gang of kidnappers abduct the young daughter of a very wealthy Connecticut man and take along the girl's nanny as well. The gang asks $500,000 in ransom money, which would have been more than a small fortune in that day and age, and goes into hiding along with the hostages in a beach house on Long Island during the off-season when no one else is around.
The gang members have a very elaborate plan for collecting the ransom and returning the daughter, but they are divided about whether or not they can let the nanny go as well. There are other tensions on top of that: One of the gang members is a woman, who may or may not be in the process of switching her affections from one of the male gang members to another. Additionally, the nanny is a delectable young woman, and that won't help matters either.
These people are all cooped up together in a small house for several days as the plan unfolds and inevitably tempers will boil over, divisions will erupt, and the question will be whether the gang can stick together long enough to collect the spoils of their effort.
This is a pretty good example of the genre, and it will remind some readers of Richard Stark's Parker series, which came along a little over ten years later. The Parker novels are generally much better done, but for fans of old-school, hard-boiled crime fiction,The Snatchers is worth seeking out. A couple of years ago, Stark House re-released the book in a single volume along with White's Clean Break, from which the movie "The Killing" was made. That is also a good read and so both books are now readily available again.