Bolt by Dick Francis (1989)
Underneath the coffee table in the lobby at the Eagle Point Diving Resort in the Philippines is a library of sorts. It consists of two German novels, two identical Bibles, and a sun-bleached copy of Dick Francis’s Bolt (in English). Having gone through my own personal library over Christmas (two books), I was desperate for something to read, and this was not something I’d pick up at a bookstore.
First of all, it wasn’t science fiction. Secondly, it was about English horse-racing. Finally, I wasn’t sure what kind of genre it was. In fact, even after I’d finished, I still don’t know. Bolt might loosely be called a “who-done-it” except that you know who the villain is almost immediately. The rest of the book is about how a jockey protects the lives and virtues of his aristocratic sponsors.
The plot is simple. A spoiled bully inherits a company co-owned with the aristocratic family. He wants the family to use their good name to change the company over to the manufacture of plastic (a la Glock) guns. They refuse and the psychopath threatens and carries out his threats against various members of the family (except the one feeding him information from within) and their thoroughbred horses.
Mr. Francis has written a score of books, and I think his jockey character has been in several of them. He refers back to incidences that took place in earlier cases, but explains them well enough so they fit logically into this story.
No, the title doesn’t refer to the nice white dog from the Disney movie. It refers to a gun that fires a bolt that retracts back into the barrel. It was supposed to be a humane way of killing livestock. In this novel, it’s the weapon of choice for someone who is killing the aristocrat’s prize-winning horses.
There’s some very good writing here. Mr. Francis (and his hero) not only juggles the dangerous situation, but he also is staying in the same mansion as his wishy-washy American girlfriend and her new suitor (an older, richer, and more attractive prince). Oh, and did I mention he has a full time job as a jockey? We have three layers here, skillfully interwoven with suspense and determination. Written in first person without being maudlin, the writing is atmospheric and action-packed.
My favorite part of the book is neither the life of a successful jockey, the on again/off again romance, or the detective work. It’s horrible Aunt Beatrice from Palm Springs, who comes to try and convince her brother (the half owner of the bully’s company) to make guns. She’s obnoxious and colorful, vain and hateful. She immediately dislikes the jockey (“he’s the help, for goodness sake!”), blames all the suffering that follows on him, and can be relied on to totally cock up any situation. The three interwoven stories would have been enough, but Aunt Beatrice is absolutely the woman we all love to hate and the icing on the cake. Spoiled, living off her brother’s money, and not happy unless she’s making everyone miserable, she’s someone we all know.
An evil race track official, a likable prince, and a damsel in distress (the American girl, of course) add spice to the mixture, but through it all our hero is determined and confident he will defeat the villain without involving the police.
Which stretched my suspension of disbelief a little far. Not until the end do the police become involved in the case. They pretty much don’t care about the death of horses (“darn kids playing around”) or the harassment of the family in spite of attempted murder (several times), attempted kidnapping, extortion, destruction of personal property, possession of illegal firearms and explosives, and trespassing. None of those seem serious enough for the family or the hero to contact the police. Of course, it would have been a completely different story if a PBS detective had shown up and solved everything for them.
The jockey likes doing things on his own outside the law; it’s his modus operandi. He wants to entrap the villain and force him to go away and leave his friends alone. With the aid of his girlfriend, the prince, a karate kid, and the chauffeur, he sets the stage for a potentially explosive ending.
And the second ending isn’t too shabby either.
As I said, this is darn good writing. I wish more science fiction stories had this many layers of wonderful words. Several of my friends have all his books and couldn’t believe I’d never read Mr. Francis. This is more of an action thriller than a mystery, but cleanse your palate with it and let me know.