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Picks and Pans Review: The Edge

updated 03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/13/1989 01:00AM

by Dick Francis

The core of this novel is a typically diverting, horse-sense Francis mystery. But he has gracefully borrowed a little from Murder on the Orient Express, Hamlet and even Dylan Thomas to help make this, his 27th novel, even more of a delight than usual. Most of it takes place on a cross-Canada train full of thoroughbreds, their owners and grooms and assorted fans all looking forward to attending a series of special events designed to promote Canadian racing. Also on board is a company of actors who perform a running mystery play; a villain who is obviously up to something unspeakable, and Tor Kelsey, an independently wealthy, 29-year-old man who works as a security agent for the British racing authorities because he enjoys the anonymity of putting on disguises and spying on people in a good cause. Kelsey is following the villain, Julius Apollo Filmer, a sly English gangster who has dabbled in extortion and murder; Kelsey joins the junket, pretending to be one of the actors cast as a waiter. When he ends up helping the actors write a couple of crucial scenes, the resulting mystery-within-a-mystery-within-a-mystery is lifted from Hamlet's "the play's the thing" scene. Francis invokes Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" in the interests of Mrs. Baudelaire. The mother of a Canadian security official, she is serving as a message relay between Kelsey and her son because she is an invalid and always available. Francis deftly creates a relationship between her and Kelsey even though they never meet face-to-face. There's only a smattering of violence, and while it is sexy in a flirtatiously winsome way, Kelsey's pursuit of the woman who's running the train tour for a travel agency never gets to the hand-holding stage. Francis relies instead on piquant details, steady pace and the intriguing personality of Kelsey, an unassuming hero who explains his investigative technique this way: "I watch for things that aren't what they were, and try to understand, and find out why." He is introspective, too, and at one point tells a teenage girl who's the daughter of a wealthy couple that he knows how hard it is to be rich: "Too much temptation. Too many available corruptions." "Do you mean drugs?" she asks. "Anything," he replies. "Too many pairs of shoes. Self-importance." It's not every day a detective with that much insight comes along, but it is, fortunately, this time every year when another Francis novel shows up to reconfirm how enjoyable a mystery can be. (Putnam, $18.95)

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