By Dick Francis
Putnam. 293 pp. $24.95
Dick Francis would be a killer contestant on "Jeopardy!" "Second Wind" is his 38th novel, and each one takes on a new profession or skill in amazing detail. As everyone knows, Francis was a jockey before he was a writer and rode for Britain's Queen Mother, so naturally the colorful world of horse racing sneaks into almost every novel, even if as only part of the scenery. Francis has written mystery thrillers about stallions at stud, transporting racehorses, prosthesis development, Scotch whisky making, banking, kidnapping, depression, private eyes, iron lungs, photography--and other topics too numerous to list.
In "Second Wind" he gives us a double play, focusing on both meteorology and smuggled nuclear materials. Now that Francis and wife Mary (his longtime researcher) live in the Cayman Islands, it is not hard to see why tracking Caribbean hurricanes has become a topic of keen interest to them. But you can't clap handcuffs on a hurricane or force it to repent its evil deeds. So while the weathermen are the good guys, the bad guys essential to a mystery are the ones trading in illegal nuclear materials on a deserted island--which is, of course, in the path of a hurricane.
When I interviewed Francis long ago, he still lived in British horse-racing country. I asked him then, rather grandiosely, about his personal idea of heroes. He thought carefully, scratched his ear and said: "They are the sort of chaps I'd like to meet. . . . I do like to write about good types." Meteorologist Perry Stuart is definitely a good type, loyal to his friends and patient with his fans. His colleague Kris Ironside doesn't quite make the hero ranks, but certainly manages to get Perry into some hair-raising scrapes.
As BBC weathercasters, the two protagonists of "Second Wind" are easily recognizable by a large number of people. Neither is above using celebrity to get out of a jam or jump to the top of a line. Weathermen, it turns out, often develop interests in particular aspects of their trade. Perry has developed a sub-specialty of advising racing trainers on the probable weather condition at the tracks where they plan to run their horses. (Francis's horse-racing fans should be warned that this is only an aside.) Kris's hobby is flying a 30-year-old Cherokee Piper airplane to encounter weather firsthand.
Not to give away the plot, which would be inexcusable, Perry, Kris and the ancient plane have some near misses, which doesn't discourage them from accepting an invitation to borrow a fancier twin-engine Piper to fly into the eye of Hurricane Odin, which is making a nuisance of itself in the Caribbean. Where else would a weatherman rather be than inside a ferocious hurricane?
Trox, the uninhabited island, is the hideout of some pretty nasty characters involved in the game of illegally trading nuclear materials, and the two plots intersect in its deserted buildings, abandoned mushroom farm and lonely herd of cows. Perry soon discovers that Kris isn't the steadiest ally or the most reliable pilot in a tight corner. When Hurricane Odin reaches Category 5 with winds of 155 mph, the action becomes literally breathtaking.
Francis is a veteran storyteller, but it must be said that the two threads of this story don't always intersect flawlessly. There's a lot of technical information to be conveyed about meteorology and nuclear supplies, and some of it is barely woven into the narrative. The reader may be forgiven for feeling a trifle overdosed on "millibars," "stadium effects" and "Saffir-Simpson scales," not to mention the Russian symbol for uranium. However, the point, as always in Dick Francis's novels, is the understated, modest hero who, when the chips are down, does behave heroically and doesn't expect much fuss to be made about it. Typical touches here are Perry Stuart's devotion to his prickly grandmother, whom he supports both financially and emotionally, and his sketchily described love interest in her current nurse, Jett.
Die-hard Francis fans, and they are legion, all have their favorite titles. I used to importune traveling friends to bring each year's new novel from England, where they were published six months earlier than in the United States. My own pick for periodic rereading dates back to that era. It's "Forfeit," in which the double plot follows reporter James Tyrone on the trail of a racing scandal, while he simultaneously cares for his polio-stricken wife who is confined to an iron lung. Genuine human emotions and failings are wonderfully combined with vivid scenes of horse racing.
"Second Wind" isn't in that league. The settings tend to dwarf the characters. So it doesn't--for me--match the most wonderful Francis mysteries I have read (and I've read them all), but it has all the economy of language and fast-moving action for which Francis is renowned. And since he threatened that "10 Lb. Penalty" would be his last novel, his readers will be relieved and delighted that he relented, and will already be looking forward to further mysteries of the Caribbean.
Brigitte Weeks, editor in chief of Guideposts Books and a former editor of Book World.