- - Friday, October 19, 2012

By Felix Francis
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26.95, 354 pages

The highly successful Francis franchise of mysteries celebrates its 50th anniversary with the publication this month of “Bloodline” by Felix Francis, son of the late writer Dick Francis.

The franchise has produced 46 intelligent and tautly written best-sellers since Dick Francis’ “Dead Cert” hit bookstores in 1962. “Bloodline” fits into this venerable tradition, though it’s doubtful many of the millions of readers attracted to the Francis stories over the decades will put this one on their five-best list.

All of the Francis novels, most still in print, have something to do with the world of British steeplechase horse racing, which Dick Francis, a former championship jockey, knew so well. To the regret of his family, friends and countless readers across the globe, Dick Francis died in 2010 after an active 89 years, during which he was a combat Royal Air Force pilot in World War II, a championship jockey, a racing journalist (after an untold number of bones broken at the track forced him to find a less dangerous occupation) and finally a beloved storyteller.

“Bloodline” is the second solo effort by Felix Francis, a researcher for his father’s work and then a co-writer for the last few novels before Dick Francis’ death. With “Gamble” in 2011 and now “Bloodline,” Felix Francis shows that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

This one opens when television racing announcer Mark Shillingford calls a race that his twin sister, jockey Clare, should have won but didn’t. He sees clues that Clare lost intentionally. There’s much unpleasantness that night when he confronts her over dinner about her throwing races and she huffs out. Hours later, Clare is dead from a fall from a hotel window. Mark doesn’t buy the police conclusion of suicide. He knows his beloved sister had much to live for, even though he has no clue why she was throwing races.

As usual, this latest Francis hero has to solve the case himself, the police being content to close this one on the basis of what they’re satisfied is a suicide note. As is also the case in Francis stories, things start to close in quickly when Mark investigates Clare’s death and tries to ferret out why she was throwing races and for whose benefit.

While following Clare’s final steps, Mark soon encounters blackmail and betrayal of various sorts involving leading lights in the racing world. He soon discovers he doesn’t know whom he can trust. Most alarming, there is someone out there who doesn’t like Mark’s butting into things enough to try to kill him to stop him. The closer Mark comes to the truth, the more danger he is in.

Like Francis heroes, Mark persists, though at great risk to himself, until the matter is unraveled. It takes courage and wit to best the villains, and the story unfolds with the suspense and insistent pace readers expect from their annual Francis fix.

“Bloodline” repays its reading time, but it’s hardly as pitch-perfect as “Gamble.” The plot is not as airtight as Francis fans have come to expect, though, as usual, there are plenty of suspects to be sorted. And some of the characters in this one seem mailed in rather than thoroughly imagined. The romance Mark falls into on the way to avenging his sister’s death is a bit too facile, even in the age of hooking up. Dick Francis, whose racing scenes were always more explicit than his romantic scenes, never would have set up these two in our hero’s bedroom.

Mark also is a little less mentally tough and stoic than the patented Francis hero. No one in “Bloodline” asks, “Do you want to talk about it?” But Mark and several other male characters cry at more than one point. Not that they don’t have reason to, but I’ve read most of the 46 and don’t recall this happening.

Mark mans up and does what needs to be done, under conditions that would discourage most. But he seems to be animated at least a bit more by the therapeutic view of life than previous Francis heroes, who hold to the tragic view. This may simply reflect the tougher life bomber pilot and jockey Dick Francis led than the one former high school physics teacher Felix Francis leads in a looser and more affluent era.

The cover of this one touts “Dick Francis’s Bloodline,” with author Felix Francis’ name in smaller type at the bottom. You can hardly blame Putnam’s for this. Most of the more than 6 million Francis books have been sold under the name of Dick Francis. His loyal readership, reported to include Elizabeth II, whose horses he used to ride, is huge. But this subtle change in the character of the Francis hero may signal that Felix Francis, certifiably a capable writer on his own, may seek his own audience.

• Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa, Fla.

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