A van carrying Thoroughbred horses picks up a hitchhiker in the English countryside, and soon the rider keels over dead in his seat—victim, an autopsy confirms, of an apparent heart attack. Just an unfortunate incident, except to Freddie Croft, a onetime jockey and owner of a fleet of horse vans, including the one that picked up the hitcher.
Freddie suspects foul play, a feeling magnified by the subsequent murder of his mechanic, Jogger, who had discovered someone tampering with the vans. This misdeed leads Croft full throttle into a complex and sinewy investigation involving a supply of dangerous viruses, a high-level European conspiracy and buckets more blood.
Francis has ridden this turf-and-terror terrain before, but he's done it better in such novels as Whip Hand and Banker. The writing is sharp and sometimes darkly humorous. The plot trots along and never wanders. Francis plants several clever diversionary gimmicks in the reader's path. And working within the confines of the proper British mystery, he wraps everything up neatly in the end.
Despite the professionalism, Driving Force lacks the tension and drama of Francis' best books. It fades in the stretch. (Putnam's, $21.95)