Dick Francis, the English steeplechase jockey turned writer of suspense novels, has had a problem with his literary career. Since his settings are nearly always the racing world, his natural audience would seem to be horse-players—alas, most dedicated horseplayers are too busy reading the Daily Racing Form to read much else. As for dyed-in-the-wool mystery fans, not all of them can appreciate the racetrack lore with which he has filled his books.
The problem may have been solved in High Stakes (Harper & Row, $7.95). This time Francis' hero resembles the average reader, in that he does not know much about horses, either. True, he bets on them; he even owns a few of them. But he has confined himself to "admiring them from a distance, giving them carrots while they are safely tied up." The first time he finds himself alone with a frightened horse he is more upset than the animal.
Around this disarmingly inexpert hero, Francis has woven a plot of admirable ingenuity. The crux of it is an elaborate scheme to keep a horse out of a race at a minor English track and substitute another horse in his place, all without the knowledge of the trainer. In other words, run a "ringer"—though not exactly, which is one of the story's twists. The co-conspirators are an unlikely quartet: a young American woman who runs a catering service in New York's Westchester County and three Englishmen—an inventor of children's toys (the hero), a bunking tycoon and a semiliterate bookmaker's clerk. How Francis manages to get this ill-assorted group together, all with a logic that precludes disbelief, is one of the book's delights.
So is the chief puzzle the conspirators face. Three horse vans are moving toward the race track, but before the track is reached, horse A must be transferred from van A to van B, horse B from van B to van C, horse C from van C to van A. Impossible, right? Not to Dick Francis, who seems to know as much about three-card monte as horse racing.
Another nice thing about the book: although Francis has a style even more clipped and fast-moving than that of most of today's thriller writers, he is also pleasantly old-fashioned. Can you imagine a 1976 suspense hero who admits that he has no idea how to defend himself in physical combat? Who does not even kiss a woman on their first date? A welcome change of pace, to use a phrase known both in and out of the racing world.