I'd like to thank Mark, a reader of this blog, for recommending that Smokescreen should be my next Dick Francis novel.
I read it and it's dynamite. I am more and more impressed with Francis. His stuff is so good — thank god there's so much of it to read.
There is an interesting development and expansion in these novels. Although they all feature the world of horse racing, Francis varies this formula by not necessarily making his protagonist part of that world.
So we have Edward Lincoln, nicknamed Link, hero of Smokescreen. He is, of all things, a movie star.
Now, this is a potentially disastrous choice of milieu and character, but the formidable Dick Francis pulls it off. He writes as knowledgeably about film making as he does about horses and jockeys.
Indeed, professional filmmakers admire the authenticity of his writing on the subject.
Another possible disaster area is the unusual location of the story. South Africa.
I assumed Smokescreen would just be a breezy thriller set in an 'exotic' location and that the political and racial nightmare of the country would be ignored. But, again, our author is far too clever for that. He cannily addresses the whole issue by letting one of his South African characters launch into an obtuse defence of her country — thereby subtly offering a critique of it.
But to hell with politics, this is a thriller and an outstanding one. The nerve wracking sequences of violence and suspense come out of nowhere and nail the reader utterly. I couldn't stop devouring the book. It was kind of an agonising pleasure.
The characters are also beautifully depicted, and given considerable depth and authenticity.
For example, Link has a brain damaged young daughter. In any other genre novel she would be allotted a huge chunk of the plot, and probably receive a miracle cure at the end. But here she is just briefly mentioned, to give a bittersweet three-dimensional quality to our hero's life. To make us care about him.
These sort of details lend the book an indelible vividness and a sense of reality.
Best of all, Smokescreen features a blithe psychopath (to use Charles Willeford's phrase) of the kind who used to feature so memorably in the novels of John D. MacDonald.
A really chilling bad guy, to set against the likable and sympathetic hero.
And, as I've come to expect from Francis, there's notable moments of wit, perceptive writing, sharp observation and excellent dialogue.
Here we have the cinematographer admiring an attractive young woman: "Conrad took in her colour temperature with an appreciative eye."
Elsewhere a poised, snobbish woman learns that her friend is terminally ill: "her grief showing through the social gloss like a thistle among orchids."
Or: "A couple of vultures... perched on a nearby tree like brooding anarchists awaiting the revolution."
More Dick Francis, please.
Incidentally, the cover photo looks like some kind of stirrup...
It's a handcuff.
(Note to blog reader Dawn Over London: I hope you enjoyed Nerve by Dick Francis. Smokescreen is well worth a look, too, as you will have gathered.)
(Image credits: As is traditional, I used one of the boldly graphic Colin Thomas covers as the main image, and it's borrowed from Jan-Willem Hubbers' fine website. The stylish and apt "blue moon" cover is from eBay. The somewhat dull first-edition clapper board cover is from Ash Rare Books.The excellent photo of Dick Francis with a horse is from his Wikipedia entry. The yellow Pan cover is from Biblio.Com's Dick Francis page. The nice (though somewhat misleading — this book isn't much about horses, or about shooting at targets at all — did anyone even read it?) 'Dick Francis Library' cover is from Waterstones.)