“ Genre: Fiction / Author: Dick Francis / 368 Pages / Publisher: Penguin / Released: 21/07/2011 „
Seriously wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and having nowhere else to go after his hospital discharge, Captain Thomas Forsyth returns home to his mother, formidable racehorse trainer Josephine Kauri. It's not exactly a hero's welcome - never the maternal sort, Josephine's hospitality is grudging, to say the least. Tom soon discovers, however, that his not-so-doting mother is up to her neck in trouble and, of course, soon becomes mixed up in it himself and puts himself in the path of danger.
Dick Francis, who died last year at the age of 89, was the author of 43 horse racing-related crime novels: his first, Dead Cert, was published in 1962, after he ended his distinguished career as a jockey. Crossfire is, for obvious reasons, his last, and like the previous three was co-written with his son Felix who is credited as joint author. (There have long been - unproven - rumours about how much of Dick Francis's novels he himself actually wrote, with suspicions that his wife Mary, who died in 2000, had a much bigger role in the writing than she was ever credited with. A 6-year gap after Mary's death gave credence to this theory, but Francis returned in 2006 with the well-received Under Orders. Latterly, it is unclear how much was written by Dick and how much by Felix; given the former's poor state of health in recent years, it seems likely that Felix may have had the lead role. It will be interesting to see if he goes on to write under his own name, and if so, whether he continues along the same successful and profitable lines as his father, or tries to find his own voice.)
Regardless of who actually wrote it, Crossfire mostly reads like a normal Dick Francis novel. Almost too much so, as without going into spoiler-ish detail, there are situations here which will definitely feel very familiar to long-time readers. However, although the background is a racing stable, there is a distinct lack of much actual horsey stuff. Really the plot, which is mainly financial, could quite easily have been tacked on (no pun intended) to any other milieu.
The title is obviously a reference to the hero being a soldier, and also apparently refers to something horses occasionally do with their legs in races, not that really this has anything to do with anything, plot-wise, but it does serve to rather tenuously maintain the racing connection of all Dick Francis titles.
One thing I've always noticed about Dick Francis books is that almost all his heroes seem to have exactly the same personality. Very different jobs and backgrounds, true, but otherwise they're basically all the same person: unassuming thirtysomething men, usually with a secret sorrow of some description, who when faced with danger discover hitherto unsuspected depths of courage and resourcefulness. However, the current protagonist Thomas Forsyth isn't quite like this (although like some other Francis heroes, notably Sid Halley, he is struggling with a disability, though it never seems to hinder him much). An army man for all his adult life, he never seems to doubt his own courage and ability, is outspoken and forthright, and appears to have no qualms about killing when it is deemed necessary. Despite having had his foot blown off in Afghanistan he would love nothing more than to get back there; and is angry and frustrated at the impossibility of this.
I didn't find Tom a particularly likeable hero; in fact I didn't find any of the characters likeable, with the possible exception of one fairly minor character, and this did hinder my enjoyment somewhat. Although the story is smoothly written (for the most part) and did keep my attention, the details of the plot weren't hugely riveting to me. Towards the end, in my view, the whole thing fell apart badly. The final showdown (there's always one, so I'm not giving anything away by saying that) is clumsily written and unconvincing, and just doesn't engage the reader's emotions (mine, anyway). It felt like a hastily written missed opportunity, and the ending didn't convince.
All in all, Crossfire is not a bad read. It holds the reader's interest, but it is not vintage Dick Francis by any means, and doesn't really represent the farewell which I, at least, would perhaps have liked. I suppose that's no surprise, though, in the circumstances. Happily, there is a top-notch range of older work for new readers to discover.
Published in Penguin paperback for £6.99 (352 pages).
Captain Thomas Forsyths tour of Afghanistan is cut brutally short when he is badly wounded by a roadside bomb. Returning home, to his mother a racehorse trainer and the First Lady of racing Tom discovers the training business is on the edge, and facing a threat far more dangerous than a run of bad form. Tom finds himself on a very different, but just as deadly, battlefield where his military skills are tested . . . kill or be killed?