Max Moreton spends much of Friday night so violently ill from food poisoning that he wishes he were dead; Saturday afternoon, he nearly gets his wish.
The food-borne illness might well be laid at his very door, for Max – owner and chef of a popular Newmarket restaurant –cooked the tainted meal himself. But there is no way he could be responsible for the bomb blast that rips through the private box at Newmarket racetrack the next afternoon, killing almost a score of the people for whom he is catering a luncheon – a blast that almost kills Max as well. “Terrorists who missed their target,” everyone says, then shake their heads and frowned sadly before moving on.
Though his body has been but slightly bruised by the explosion, Max’s pride – not to mention reputation – suffers a devastating blow when the health department first closes his restaurant then brings charges against him over the food poisoning incident. Certain as only a top chef can be that he had nothing to do with any illness, Max sets out to clear his name; seeking a reason why someone poisoned his dinner (and his guests) deliberately. It isn’t until after a second attempt on his life fails that Max realizes that, in attempting to discover who slipped poison into the food, he has accidentally stuck his nose in the wrong place, made the wrong phone call, provoked the wrong person. That unhappy accident, it seems, might well kill him.
After the death of his wife and co-author, Mary, in 2000, master mystery writer Dick Francis spent some five years in silence between Shattered (2001, the last book written with his wife) and the publication of Under Orders in 2006. His research assistant on that latest installment in the Sid Halley series, son Felix, has subsequently been elevated to co-author status for Dead Heat. As do most novels from the pen of Francis, once a hunt jockey, this one is set in and around the English horse racing community. Hero Max Moreton, though a restaurateur, is the son and brother of horse trainers and regularly entertains the local “horsy set” at his restaurant. It is through this somewhat sidelong glance at the world of morning gallops and winner’s circles that Francis et fils carry on the family tradition of equine mysteries. Make no mistake: regardless of the novel's running primer on running a restaurant or its occasional glimpses into the workings of orchestras, it is most certainly about horses and the people who ride them.
As is the case in any Francis mystery (most mysteries in general, in fact), the path to the climax is littered with false scents and the occasional red herring. The climactic plot twist is, to be sure, of the "Wow! I never saw that one coming!" variety, a Francis hallmark. Longtime Francis readers – the one-time jockey to the Queen Mum has published some forty novels – are used to his understated, self-deprecating heroes (Moreton is no exception), as well as the occasional hole in the plotting. This time there's a motive that comes straight from an episode of CSI from several years back, and a hero who apparently lacks the cash to hire an investigator to look into the poisoning but has enough to jump on a plane for a transatlantic flight on a moment's notice. There also seems a most curious shortage of policemen investigating a bomb blast that killed twenty people or so.
Most folks don't read Dick Francis for tightly plotted whodunits, however; they read him for characters who, while not exactly everyman, consistently demonstrate good sense (one might even say "horse sense") without being overly full of themselves. Moreton, certainly a likeable young gent, is by turns confident and self-critical; and even if he isn't bright enough to let the professionals handle the investigation, he's at least smart enough to slip out of town when the environment gets too hot. He's also a young man with a bright future - especially now that he's poisoned the love of his life.
Francis and Francis are back in the saddle – it may be a different Francis on the bottom line this time, but the old boy apparently hasn't lost a step.