- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2011

By Felix Francis
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26.95, 352 pages

On the evidence of his first solo effort, it appears that Felix Francis can write on his own. A family tradition can continue. Mr. Francis is the youngest son of the late, mega-popular thriller writer Dick Francis, whose 40-plus novels, starting with 1962’s “Dead Cert,” have sold tensof millions of copies and won the elder Francis every prize in the mystery biz on both sides of the Atlantic.

Starting in the 1990s, Felix assisted in research for his father’s very detailed novels. His contribution increased to the point that for the last four novels, “Dead Heat” (2007), “Silks” (2008), “Even Money” (2009) and “Crossfire” (2010), Felix was elevated to the status of co-author with his father.

To the great regret of the mystery-reading world, Dick Francis died in January 2010 at age 89 after a long and eventful life that saw him as a World War II Royal Air Force combat pilot, a championship steeplechase jockey, a racing journalist and a best-selling novelist. “Gamble” is Felix Francis’ first attempt on his own to keep the Francis franchise going.

Dick Francis has been a brand for decades, a brand that has guaranteed lively sales to booksellers and publishers alike. So it’s no surprise that Putnam chose to remind potential buyers of this new book of the connection to the trusted brand, titling the latest book “Dick Francis’s Gamble,” even though Dick Francis does not appear in the book and, according to the publishers, had no hand in its writing.

If he continues to turn out stories of this quality, Felix Francis’ name doubtless will reach the top of the book one day. “Gamble” has all the things that loyal readers have anticipated in their annual Francis fix: a taut and intelligent story full of suspense, danger and mystery in spare and fast-moving prose that keeps readers’ attention.

The mystery plot in “Gamble,” in the English tradition, is complex, with multiple suspects and red herrings. The novel contains a satisfying romantic subplot involving the protagonist, one Nicholas “Foxy” Foxton, a former steeplechase jockey forced out of the saddle by a career-ending injury. Nicholas reluctantly has moved into the less exciting but also less perilous life of a financial adviser. Misjudgments and spills here can be costly but usually don’t lead to traction or worse.

Nicholas’ placid white-collar life is jolted to another level when a colleague is shot and killed, assassination style, right in front of Nicholas on what was supposed to be an enjoyable day at the racetrack. This shock barely wears off before Nicholas has another surprise. His late colleague Herb Novak, whom Nicholas hardly knew outside of the office during Novak’s life, has named Nicholas executor of his estate and sole beneficiary. It doesn’t take long to see that Novak’s estate not only owes far more than it’s worth, but that Novak had been involved in so many dodgy international gambling activities that Nicholas wonders how Novak had the time to do any financial planning.

While Nicholas tries to unravel the mare’s nest of Novak’s moonlighting activities, one of his firm’s clients brings to Nicholas’ attention a foreign investment project boosted by Nicholas’ firm that, on examination, appears to be as bent as Novak’s gambling scams.

When Nicholas pulls on the strings of both Novak’s activities and the phony investment, it becomes clear that some very bad and very determined characters want him to butt out and are willing to kill him to stop his meddling. In short order, Nicholas doesn’t know whom he can trust and who’s a danger to him. As is always the case with Francis heroes, Nicholas Foxton will have to unravel this one on his own.

There are plenty of twists, turns and misdirections in the unraveling, and it will call on all of Nicholas’ courage and ingenuity to meet the challenges thrown at him by the bad guys. But this is the way for the intelligent, stoic, mentally tough and decent Francis heroes who’ve been entertaining countless readers for the past half-century.

Felix Francis’ pre-literary life was as a high school physics teacher rather than a championship jockey. But it appears the world of racing will continue to play a role in Francis stories. It also appears from the deft treatment of plot, characterization, setting and pace that readers will encounter in “Gamble” that Francis novels, under new management, will continue to find themselves at the very top levels of genre fiction.

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.

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