There are two themes that run through most if not all of Dick Francis’ acclaimed mysteries: All of them involve the sport of horse racing to a greater or lesser degree, and most of them feature protagonists with less than convivial family relationships. Both conditions turn up in Francis’ Bonecrack (1971), which I re-read recently as part of a group read at LibraryThing.
Neil Griffon is a business wunderkind, who accumulated a fortune buying and selling antiques and went on to make a career out of diagnosing and advising struggling businesses. He has a polite but distant relationship with his father, a highly successful horse trainer in Newcastle. When his father suffers an accident that lands him in the hospital with a complicatedly broken leg, Neil steps in to keep the stable running until his father is on his feet again. With his business instincts, it doesn’t take him long to discover that the place is in financial difficulties, a fact his father has been hiding from everyone.
Before Neil has time to absorb all of this, he is kidnapped from his father’s office and forced to hire the mastermind’s son as an apprentice jockey, despite his utter lack of experience. On his own, Neil would be inclined to risk the consequences of refusing such extortion, but there’s his father and the stable’s shaky finances to consider, as well as the fact that the kidnappers cleverly threaten not his own life but those of his father’s horses. How Neil balances giving the kidnappers enough of what they want while finding ways to use the apprentice’s own complicated father-son relationship to his advantage, provides most of the novel’s interest.
This isn’t one of my favorite Francis novels. Because we don’t meet Neil’s father until he’s already laid up in hospital, it’s hard to get a sense of him as a fully formed human being. That makes the estrangement between him and Neil feel somewhat distant rather than visceral, and makes it harder to understand why Neil is so intent on solving his problem with the least amount of damage to his father’s business and reputation. And the mastermind criminal’s villainy is so broadly drawn as to seem cartoonish. But some secondary characters are appealing, including the stable’s female head groom. And Alessandro, aspiring jockey and son of a thug, undergoes the kind of personal transformation under subtle manipulation from Neil that makes him by far the most compelling character in the whole book.
A final note: I do not recommend this book to anyone who recoils at the depiction of animals being killed (a theme Francis would return to in 1987’s Bolt). The violence can seem jarring, especially at the hands of Francis, whose own love and respect for horses makes them full-fledged characters alongside the humans.