It's been a long while since I read a book by Dick Francis, having missed last year's UNDER ORDERS. For years I watched eagerly for his annual offering and many of them still hold a place on my shelves. I'm delighted that after the sad death of his wife Mary, a new collaboration with son Felix is producing such solid material.
In usual Francis fashion, the protagonist is a pleasant fellow with a connection to British horse racing; in this case, Max Moreton of Newmarket, a young Michelin-recognized chef. Moreton unknowingly caters a poisoned dinner on the eve of the prestigious 2,000 Guineas race, and on Guineas Day he is again catering when the site is blown up. Max's kitchen is closed and he's served with a notice of prosecution under the Food Safety Act.
To complete the tale of Max's woes, the brakes are cut on his car and his house is burned down. This is fairly standard for a Dick Francis protagonist, and Max withstands it all with the usual philosophical attitude. Max may be less edgy than some of Francis characters, and as a result less compelling.
DEAD HEAT varies in a few subtle ways from Formula Francis. For one thing, there's little of the racing world in evidence. No dawn rides in the misty Sussex training paddocks; no intrigue among the jockeys in their distinctive racing colors; no stables, spotless or otherwise, with the "lads" tending to the horses; no parade ring with the victorious horses steaming and tossing their heads while exultant owners brandish gaudy prize mugs. I never thought I loved Francis' books for the racing, but to my surprise, I missed it.
Another subtle difference in this book is that Max seems oddly devoid of friends and family. The story would have benefited from a few more characters to swell his progress. True, the point is made that a chef's working hours interfere with personal relationships; but a few more fully-drawn characters would have rounded the book out.
Ah, and the love interest. Charming, but possibly a bit too slick? The lovely Caroline fell into his lap a bit too easily.
But with those provisos, DEAD HEAT is well done and satisfying, with unexpected flashes of humor, and the good guy wins in the end. Definitely recommended if it's your kind of book, and let's cross our fingers that the Francis dynasty continues.