Dick Francis thrillers have appeared annually since 1964, and they are among the very best around. An ex-steeplechase jockey in England, Francis always uses some aspect of racing as background and the incrustation of his knowledge of English tracks is priceless.
Knockdown (Harper & Row, $6.95) is about bloodstock sales, and its hero is an honest agent named Jonah Dereham. Just after he buys a horse, ominously called Hearsepuller, accidents begin to mar Dereham's orderly existence. A valuable—and uninsured—colt boarded in his barn is mysteriously set loose at night; then Dereham's house burns down. Someone, it seems, wants honest agents out of the way.
Dereham is a typical Francis horseman: a terse, tough, conscientious loner. Like his predecessors, he is also something of a masochist. He supports a brother who is a helpless alcoholic and pursues a girl who is even more stubbornly independent than he is. Francis takes wayward satisfaction in loading his heroes down with chronic, insoluble problems. In this respect Knockdown is his bleakest book yet.
The best scenes take place at the thoroughbred sales at Ascot and Newmarket. During them the reader forgets the conspiracy against Dereham and becomes absorbed in the equally exciting auctions. Ascot is cramped and cold. At Newmarket things are grander—and more crooked. Dereham warns a rapacious colleague off a chestnut colt. The animal is listed as the get of an established dominant bay sire called Transporter. As Jonah points out, Transporter has never sired a chestnut and genetically it is virtually impossible. (In this year's Kentucky Derby field, there was a similar case of unlikely parentage: Rushing Man is a roan with two chestnuts listed as parents. It just does not happen.)
The detail in Knockdown is rich enough to suggest that there may be another book in the intricacies of bloodstock and thoroughbred sales, but Francis has never yet repeated himself. For his next plot he may not even have to leave Newmarket. The recent strike there of the "lads," or stable help, was marked by a couple of frays. Willie Carson, a champion jockey, was pulled from his mount by picketers, whereupon several spectators—in true British fashion—attacked the lads for upsetting the horses. Just one twist, like an agitator for something more than higher wages, should set Francis going again.