by Terry Conway
Someone is trying to bring down the British Horseracing Authority, the austere organization that regulates the whole of the racing industry. Extortion is the game. A villain named Leonardo demands £5 million in exchange for not destroying the integrity of the sport. Sounds like a job for one of Dick Francis’ stalwart heroes.
The October release of “Damage” is the 50th book in the stable of the legendary thriller writer who died in 2010. It’s youngest son Felix Francis ‘ fourth solo “Dick Francis” novel, and it maintains the high standard that readers have come to expect since Dick’s first mystery novel “Dead Cert” in 1962.
A former Welsh steeplechase jockey who became the official jockey for Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother, Dick Francis won over 350 National Hunt races. Then he stumbled into a second, even more lucrative profession on his retirement from professional racing. Francis went on to become one of the most respected and popular mystery writers in the world, winning numerous awards including three Edgar Awards, the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger, and the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. He died four years ag0 at the age of 89.
Trained as a physicist, Felix spent seventeen years teaching A-level physics before taking on the role as manager to his father’s publishing empire in the late 1980s. Over the years, he assisted Dick with both the research and writing of his novels. Damage is Felix’s fourth stand alone mystery.
Damage takes readers into some of racing’s darker corners. The book is somewhat inspired by the drug scandal that rocked the British racing world last year when mighty thoroughbred owner and breeder Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s English trainer doped his horses with anabolic steroids in an attempt to cheat by enhancing their racing performance and not for veterinary reasons.
Then, as Damage books were being readied to ship to bookstores in late September, a racehorse owned by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was stripped of a second-place finish in this year’s prestigious Gold Cup after testing positive for the banned painkiller morphine, thereby proving truth is stranger than fiction.
Damage has all the elements that made Dick Francis a literary giant– the masterful suspense, the thorough research, the nasty and brutal bad guys, and the likeable hero who is calmly professional and possesses a dogged pragmatism and steely determination. Jeff Hinkley is an undercover investigator for the BHA whose expertise in surveillance has developed from several tours of Afghanistan in the British Intelligence Corps. Hinkley navigates a series of clever plot twists and turns, finally unraveling the identity of the perpetrator in a classic chase scenario.
It all starts at Champion Hurdle Day at Cheltenham Racetrack in Gloucestershire that attracts a race crowd of more than 50,000. As the first race gets underway Hinkley and BHA colleague Nigel Green are busy tailing banned horse trainer Matthew Unwin. Suddenly, Unwin walks up to bookmaker Jordan Furness and slashes his throat right before their eyes.
The gruesome murder is quickly linked to the reason the trainer was banned from racing in the first place– doping his horses. A few days later, another doping scandal erupts. Tests results from another marquee race reveal that all but three horses in the field tested positive for stimulants. This is big trouble for the BHA. Racing is one of the largest employment sectors in the United Kingdom economy. It’s a torrid scandal that threatens to completely destroy the integrity of the racing industry.
Damage is a nicely plotted and engaging mystery novel where Felix expertly choreographs Hinkley’s extended cat-and-mouse duel. It’s a rip-roaring tale, one that the reader will be hard pressed to put down at bedtime.
Carrying on with the Francis family business, Damage follows hard on the heels of Felix’s Refusal, Bloodline, and Gamble. In it he showcases a wit and a style all his own that is both fresh and enjoyable. Written with the famous Francis flair, Felix writes in the first person just as his father did. He says it’s what the readers expect. Felix uses many of his father’s creative trademarks– clever problem-solving and the headstrong central character who tends to outsmart the coppers working on the crime.
At times Dick Francis drew on Felix’s experience as a physicist, and on his prowess as an international marksman. As a 17-year old physics student Felix designed the bomb that blew up the plane in “Rat Race” and wrote the computer program in “Twice Shy.”
Dick Francis only resurrected two heroes over four decades-plus years of writing– Kit Fielding and everyone’s favorite, the one-armed Sid Halley. With the urging of his publisher, Felix’s fall 2015 book will feature Jeff Hinkley as the main character, once again combating all sorts of wickedness in the racehorse world.