To The Hilt

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In 1998 or so, I tossed all the Dick Francis novels written up till then into my to-be-read system. Nearly twenty years later (whoa), we're reaching the end of that project. My favorite Dick Francis book is Proof, but this may be my second-favorite.

We have a true Dick Francis hero in the protagonist, Alexander Kinloch. He's a long-haired painter, and has ensconced himself up in the remote Scottish highlands hut to do his artistry. (A true Scotsman, he even plays the bagpipes.) But he gets a call from his mother: his stepfather, Ivan, has had a heart attack, and the family business, a brewery, is floundering on the edge of bankruptcy due to embezzlement by a trusted employee. Could Alexander come down and help out?

Well, sure. But no sooner does he accept than he's visited by four thugs, demanding that he cough up… something hidden, but they never say what exactly. This does not stop them from beating Alexander mercilessly and tossing him down a nearby cliff.

Like all good Francis heroes, Al lets us know that he's hurting, but doesn't let that stop him from his obligations. Back in civilization, he's in a complex world of skulduggery and violence. Ivan's biological daughter is suspicious that Al is trying to cut her out of her inheritance; her husband is even more hostile. (One thing about Francis: some of his villains are pretty obvious.) It becomes clear that Ivan is trying to protect a number of his assets from the upcoming, seemingly inevitable, bankruptcy: a horse (of course) and a trophy which he assumes has been given to Al to hide. Oops, it never actually made it to Al. But was that why he was beaten up?

Very complex and twisty, many colorful characters, and (unlike a lot of the novels I've been reading) the book never gave me the feeling it was padded to hit a contract-specified word count.