Picks and Pans Review: Straight

updated 02/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Dick Francis

Okay, let's get one thing straight about Straight. It is only middling Dick Francis. But to the legions of Francis fans, middling Francis is infinitely better than no Francis. And even for non-Franciphiles, there is much to recommend this novel. This is the 28th trip around the track for the jockey turned author, but his prose remains as refreshingly readable as ever. The smashing opening paragraph is an example of his marvelous economy of style: "I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me."

Francis's protagonists are all but interchangeable; this time around, our hero is Derek Franklin (note the initials), a 34-year-old steeplechase jockey. He is thrown from a horse the same week his brother's sudden death throws him into a world that is entirely foreign to him—that of semiprecious stones. As he hobbles about on crutches, Franklin delves into his brother's business. Of course, he uncovers all sorts of nefarious activities and finds himself the victim of several attacks on his person, prompting him to note drily, "In the last six days I'd been crunched by a horse, a mugger and a woman. All I needed was a toddler to amble up with a coup de grace."

Although the sport of kings is what Francis knows best, he frequently takes novelistic fliers into other fields. Reflex and Banker were successful offtrack forays; Straight is less so. Try as he might, Francis never really makes the world of rhodonite, jasper, aventurine and spinel as interesting as the exotic-sounding names of these gems. Straight also takes a distressingly long time to get on track. The traditional Franciscan love interest is almost entirely missing, and the villain of the piece is an ill-defined character who practically pops out of nowhere at the end of the book.

"Disappointments, injustices, small betrayals, they were everyone's lot," observes Franklin. "I no longer expected everything to go right, but enough had gone right to leave me at least in a balance of content." While Straight may be a slight disappointment, it—like all Francis novels—leaves the reader with a balance of content. (Putnam, $18.95)

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