Wild Horses by Dick Francis: A review

There was a time in my life - maybe 20-25 years ago - when Dick Francis was actually my favorite author. I looked forward to his new book every year and rushed out to buy it as soon as it was in the bookstores. Eventually though, all of his plots and all of his characters took on a sameness and it became hard to distinguish one book from another. Moreover, I got older and my tastes in literature changed. In the '90s, I stopped reading him altogether. In fact, I think Wild Horses was one of the last of his books that I read before I dropped him. This month it was the selection for my local Mystery Book Club and so I re-read it, because I really couldn't remember anything about it. 

It all came back to me slowly as I read. In this one, Francis' hero is a film director who was once a jockey until he got too big. Now he's directing a movie about the racing world, specifically about the hanging death of the wife of a trainer some twenty-six years before. The mystery of the death was never solved. It was never proved whether it was suicide or murder although there were suspicions that her husband had killed her. Twenty-five years later a writer had published a fictionalized account of the story and now our hero is turning it into a movie. 

As it happens, this makes several people really nervous. They don't want that whole can of worms opened up once again and soon threats of death and destruction plague the making of the movie and actual attempts at mayhem proliferate. Meanwhile, offstage so to speak, tangential characters are dying, sometimes in bloody fashion. Are the deaths and the discontent with the reopening of the questions about the death of a woman more than a quarter of a century before somehow related? The director suspects they may be and sets himself the task of solving the mysteries - if only he can live long enough. 

The director, Thomas Lyon, is one of Francis' typical decent, stoic heroes, one who takes a licking and keeps on ticking. His heroes always get painfully injured during the course of their investigations - beaten up, shot, stabbed - but it only makes them more determined. Thomas Lyon fits right into that mold. They also tend to have very chaste sex lives and to view men as the protectors of women. Weirdly, in this rewriting of the basic Francis plot, this 30-year-old director is smitten with a farmer's virginal teenage daughter. She just happens to be the daughter of the man whose first wife was killed all those many years ago. 

The plot plods on, not really at all like wild horses racing across a beach. It was predictable in all its turns, although I have to admit I didn't fully remember who the culprit was until he was uncloaked by the director/investigator. Nevertheless, it was an oddly satisfying read for me, a blast from the past, even though it isn't something that I would choose on my own to read today. It doesn't have the zip and freshness that many of Francis' early novels did. Still, it held some pleasures. Mostly nostalgic.


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