“Longshot” by Dick Francis



Dick Francis

John Kendall takes a job everyone else has turned down. But it seemed better than freezing. Only it sucks him straight into a murder mystery.

“Longshot” is one of my very favorite Francis books, and it was just as good on the last reread. Written in 1990, right when Francis was at the height of his powers (in my opinion), it is a tour de force of plotting and characterization.

Compared with some of his other works, it seems at first glance like there isn’t much there. The plot is sharply focused–just John Kendall, aspiring writer, and the tight-knit community of the trainer whose biography he’s been commissioned to write–and the action unfolds in a measured, almost leisurely pace. There’s a good deal about John’s struggles to write, about the day-to-day life at the stable, and about the “survivalist” treks he, whose speciality prior to trying his hand at fiction was back-country survival, takes the trainer’s youngest son on.

But the leisurely, low-key story makes the violence and the action stand out all the more against the backdrop of wintertime village life, and the two main action sequences are some of the most viscerally gripping I’ve ever read, by Francis or anyone else. In fact (just between you and me), I’ve deliberately used them as inspiration in my own writing, because they are unforgettable, creating an atmosphere of terrifying threat out of completely ordinary surroundings that is almost horror-like in its intensity. “Longshot” really is a story of survival, and survival stories, along with war stories and love stories, are what humans want to hear.

“Longshot” is also another of Francis’s “artist” novels, and one suspects that, as in the previous “artist-hero” books I’ve reviewed, we’re getting here a glimpse at the creative process of Francis himself. John wants to be a writer, but finds it a hard slog and is always looking for excuses to get out of writing. He also gets his own hero into jams that he doesn’t know how to get him out of, which explains a good deal of the thrilling excitement of Francis’s action sequences–did he start them not knowing the outcome himself? In any case, “Longshot” is an excellent midwinter read, just the kind of thing to savor while huddled up in the warmth and thanking your lucky stars that you’re not lost in the British wilderness, shivering your life out in Sherwood Forest. A true classic.

And in case you’re wondering, my own book that borrows a tiny, tiny bit from “Longshot” is The Breathing Sea I & II.  You can snag a free preview of Part I here.  And the full books are available on Amazon here and here.

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