It’s a Mystery: “Life is never good nor evil, but only a place for good and evil”

by Felix Francis
G.P. Putnam’s, 2018

Crisis Felix Francis.jpeg

The latest addition to the Francis family stable is, as they say, as good as it gets. Before his father, British jockey-turned-legendary novelist Dick Francis, died in 2010, Felix had coauthored four novels with him. The mantle then fell on his shoulders and he wore it with great panache from the very beginning. The eighth in his slew of critically acclaimed racetrack novels is Crisis. It’s worth repeating that what makes the Francis thrillers special is that you don’t need to know anything about the equestrian mis en scène or even be fond of horses to get great pleasure from them.  As the critic John Leonard wrote, “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoevsky because you don’t like God.”

As Crisis opens, Harrison “Harry” Foster, a legal consultant specializing in crisis management for the London firm of Simpson White Consultancy Ltd., is dispatched to Newmarket. His mission is to investigate a fire in the Castleton House Stables owned by the Chadwick family. Considered one of the finest racehorse training establishments in the country, it was home to seven very valuable horses that were destroyed in the fire. The most prized of the lot, Prince of Troy, was the current wonder racehorse and the odds-on favorite for the renowned Epsom Derby. His death is an immeasurable loss to racing, as well as to its Middle-Eastern owner Sheikh Karim, who is Harry’s client.

On his client’s behalf, Harry is to liaise with Oliver Chadwick the current head of the racing dynasty. This entails a front row seat to the internecine politics of what turns out to be a very dysfunctional family. They are a proper nest of vipers. Sibling rivalry is rampant and there is no love lost among the lot of them. Patriarch Oliver holds the reins, resentment is high between his two trainer sons, Ryan and Declan, with younger son Tony riding as a jockey but never measuring up to his two older brothers. Then there is Oliver’s only daughter Zoe, who is married, lives in London and has often spelled trouble for the family.

Confronted by the whole family—Oliver’s choice not his—Harry lays down the ground rules:

My name is Harry Foster. I’m a lawyer and I am here as Sheikh Karim’s personal representative…. The Sheikh is very keen to ensure that nothing is said or done that in any way reflects badly on him or his reputation. And that means he also has the well-being of you and your stables at heart. It must be clearly understood that nothing should be said by any of you to anyone, and specifically not to the press, without clearing it with me first, and I mean nothing. Not even “no comment.” That makes it look like you’re hiding something. Better to say nothing at all. Do you understand?

They do but they are not at all sanguine about it. Silence turns out to be the least of their problems when the police discover human remains in the burnt-out shell. As all the stable staff have been accounted for, the identity is an enigma. It’s just one of many as Harry probes deeper into the many unanswered questions surrounding the fire and its aftermath.

The quest for answers thrusts Harry very much in harm’s way. It leads to an unearthing of family secrets, which to a person they’d prefer remain buried. It’s all here: incest, blackmail, murder, mayhem and megalomania among the high and mighty. No one is left unscathed. As usual, Francis ratchets up the tension to the very end.

With Crisis, Francis has given us another special thriller. He delivers compelling behind-the-racing-scene details, delicious character vignettes, and some hard-hitting gritty stories full of surprising twists and turns. Welcome to the winner’s circle once again.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.