I usually review books that people send me, and it’s a bit of a crapshoot whether they will turn out good or not. So every once in a while I pick an author I enjoy and do some recreational reading. Dick Francis is one of my favourites. His stories have great characters, good conflicts, and interesting details.
A standard format among mystery writers is to set their stories in different interesting occupations, in order to add depth and interest to the novel. There are mystery solvers who are chefs, mediums, second-hand fashionistas, you name it. Dick Francis goes one better. All of his books take place in the English racing world, but each book has a new hero who has a different racing-related job. So there are Dick Francis mysteries about everyone from a jockey to the glass blower who makes the trophies.
And now a chef.
“Dead Heat” is the story of Max, owner of the Hay Net, an upscale restaurant catering to – of course – the racing crowd. An escalating series of misfortunes – the opening involves the chef himself suffering from food poisoning – leads him to wonder whether these misfortunes had anything to do with bad luck. Once he starts investigating, they start to look like attempts on his life. And away we go.
Another interesting trick Mr. Francis uses is to get the love interest settled in the first half of the book, and then send the pair off on the rest of the adventures together. I can’t complain about this, because I use it myself at times. But it does concentrate us on the real action for the second half.
Which is good, because for once the “other occupation” technique in this book does not pay off. In order to write fiction about a foodie, you have to be really in love with food yourself, or the story comes off sounding like a series of menus. Francis has done diligent research, but he doesn’t exhibit that overwhelming love for the subject that will have us drooling as we read.
So the first third of the book is a bit low on entertainment value.
Once the two lovebirds get together, the murder mystery really gets started, the action picks up, the hero starts collecting wounds and the whole story rolls to a tense and satisfying conclusion.
If this were any self-published Joe or Jane submitting a book, I might be persuaded to stretch for five stars, but Mr. Francis has done better. (4 / 5)