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Dick Francis
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To The Hilt
hardcover
282 pages
Alexander Kinloch, the hero-narrator of Francis' 1996 thriller, is not a horseman. A painter, he enjoys a solitary life in a windswept hut on his aristocractic uncle's Scottish estate. But his solitude is disrupted first by news of his stepfather's heart attack and then by four thugs who attack him and ransack his hut.

Kinloch has never been close to his stepfather, Ivan, but quickly finds himself embroiled in his plight, up to his neck in bank officers and lawyers and entrusted with hiding a race horse and a jewel-encrusted trophy. All of which he accepts with stoic aplomb, despite the increasing risk to his own neck and the disruption of his life.

There's not much racing in this one, but Francis' hero does plenty of quick thinking and maneuvering and takes plenty of knocks as he defends the family's honor "to the hilt," ferreting out a murderer in the process.

Francis keeps things moving and invests his characters with complex and very British codes of honor. His fans will not be disappointed.
8/10
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Clare Francis
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A Dark Devotion
hardback
410 pages
Surprisingly enough, "A Dark Devotion" turned out to be a very fast and suspenseful read. This, in spite of the fact that you can almost see certain plot twists and turns coming a mile off! Claire Francis is definitely a mistress at spinning a suspenseful yarn.

The plot for "A Dark Devotion" is a fairly simple and much used one: Alex O' Neill receives a frantic 'phone call from an old childhood friend, Will Dearden, one day, asking for her help -- Will's beautiful wife, Grace, has suddenly gone missing; the police investigation into her disappearance seems to have come to a standstill; and Will is slowly going to pieces not knowing what to do or whom to turn to. Of course Alex drops everything in order to return to her childhood haunt at Deepwell (in Norfolk) in order to give Will whatever moral support and professional help he may need (Alex is also a lawyer). What Alex finds at Deepwell is a nightmare scenario where the police seem to suspect Will of having done away with his beautiful and popular wife, in spite of Will's obvious overwrought state. Could the police be right? Could her childhood friend be capable of murder? The more Alex discovers about Grace and the Dearden's marriage, the more Alex begins to reconsider her idea of who and what Grace; but it also makes her take a closer look at her friend, and to wonder if Will had a hand at Grace's disappearance after all...

Told against the backdrop of the Norfolk dunes and it's bad weather, "A Dark Devotion" proved to be a tale that was full of swirling emotions and atmosphere. Claire Francis did a fantastic job of weaving in the weather, landscape, the darker (and weaker) of the human frailties into the story of Grace Dearden's disappearance and the repercussions her disappearance had on those around her. Also wonderfully done was how she juterposed Alex's failing marriage, the ethical problems she was facing at work and at home, and her relationship with her brother (who still lives at Deepwell and who seems to have a bee in his bonnet where the Deardens are concerned), with the story of Grace's disappearance. And this is why "A Dark Devotion" turned out to be such a wonderful and rewarding read. As I noted before, if you're a mystery buff, you'll probably see some of the plot twists and resolutions coming a mile off, but the manner in which the authour tells her story, the manner in which she fleshes out her chief protagonist -- the plucky and extremely likable Alex O' Neill, the excellent pacing and the clever juxtaposition of subplots, is what makes "A Dark Devotion" an excellent read, and well worth the high hardcover purchase price.
9/10
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Running Apache