- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2010

CROSSFIRE
By Dick and Felix Francis
Putnam, $26.95, 336 pages

The bad news is there will be no more taut and intelligent mystery/thrillers from the hands of revered writer Dick Francis, who died in February at 89. He will be missed by his millions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. The good news is that Felix Francis, Dick Francis’ youngest son and co-author on the last four Francis novels, will attempt to continue the franchise.

Also good news is that “Crossfire,” the final novel Dick Francis was involved with writing, lives up to the high standards the author set and maintained since he moved from racing journalism to novels in 1962 with “Dead Cert.” In the half-century and 40-plus books since then, the senior Francis’ novels have sold millions of copies and he won every literary prize in the mystery genre, some multiple times. The British writer was even selected Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America.

Dick Francis novels, and lately those by the Francis tag-team, feature complex plots in lean, insistent prose that never let the story lag. Francis protagonists are tough, intelligent, resourceful and decent young men who are tested to the limit by very bad guys (and the occasional bad gal). The Francis treatment of theme and place is as good as what readers will find in mainstream novels.

Though Francis heroes are from various occupations, the worlds of which are thoroughly researched and brought to life on the page, the stories all have some connection with British horse racing, a world that Dick Francis, a former championship steeplechase jockey, knew intimately.

“Crossfire” is no exception. Capt. Thomas Forsyth has known no life but Her Majesty’s Army since he enlisted at 17. The life he has come to love is abruptly interrupted when he loses his right leg below the knee to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. After rehab and a prosthetic device, Forsyth is given six months leave to recover, with his post-leave army career in doubt.

So, where to go for six months, after which the army will decide if it has further need of Capt. Forsyth? Reluctantly, he chooses to return to Lambourn and the home of his abrasive mother, a very successful horse trainer, mega ego and first-rate bully, with whom he’s never gotten along. His reception from his mother and stepfather are about as scratchy as he expects. Things are further complicated shortly after his arrival when he learns his formidable mother is being blackmailed. She stands to lose her reputation, her business and perhaps her freedom if she doesn’t continue to pay the blackmailers an amount she can’t afford. Something has to give.

Capt. Forsyth may be out of uniform, out to pasture, and still getting used to his artificial limb. But now he has what an infantry officer is most focused and effective with - targets and objectives. He has a mission. He must identify and thwart the blackmailers to save his mother from ruin. But because of what the blackmailers have, he can’t involve the police. He soon learns that the enemies he faces in Lambourn can be as determined and as deadly as those he faced in Afghanistan. They have no more respect for his life than the Taliban did. The weapons may be different, but it’s combat all the same.

The mystery unfolds slowly and plausibly with the aid of believable characters and real-life dialogue. Readers are kept guessing as Capt. Forsyth, in the tradition of Francis protagonists, uses his wits, courage and, in this instance, army training, to go one-on-several with the evildoers. Readers, as well as Capt. Forsyth’s fictional antagonists, will learn what “command moment” means, and a little something about what being a warrior is all about.

Readers who don’t care about horse racing (include me here) needn’t pass over the Francis work. Like the best of mystery/thriller/detective stories, these novels are morality plays. The racing world, which considering the money involved at all levels can be a petri dish for corruption, is just the rich backdrop for the good-versus-evil struggle.

Without preaching about it, the Francis novels explore some virtues that are increasingly ignored, sometimes laughed at, in our post-everything, therapeutic, do-you-want-to-talk-about-it society. Virtues like loyalty, duty, honor, self-respect, doing the necessary but difficult job even when you don’t want to.

Felix Francis, a physics professor, obviously knows a good deal less about the racing world than his father did. So we’ll see how far he strays from the racetrack in his own work. Whether or not he stays in harness, readers will shortly learn if he’s a storyteller in his own right. He has one priceless advantage. He couldn’t have had a better teacher.

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.