January 2000

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Second Wind:
Exploring the Conspiracies
That Come After the Storm

by Daphne Frostchild

Second Wind
Dick Francis
293 pp.
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Summarizing even the opening chapters of Dick Francis's fortieth book, Second Wind, may leave all of us feeling a little...well, winded, but here goes:

Perry Stuart, Second Wind's narrator and hero, has traveled by plane with his fellow BBC meteorologist and amateur pilot friend, Kris Ironside, to have lunch in the English countryside with a wealthy horse owner named Caspar Harvey. It's something they do quite often; as meteorologists, they're in a position to help both race horse owners and farmers with personalized weather reports, and being wined and dined by various suitors is a fringe benefit that makes up for their mediocre civil servant salaries. This time, though, it's not a simple exchange of food and information. While Harvey is giving the meteorologists a tour of his stables, they discover that one of the race horses has fallen deathly ill from....yes, poison.

Of course, this keeps the horse from running in the weekend races, and the missed race and the suspicion that his trainer, Oliver Quigley, is somehow responsible for the horse's collapse motivates Harvey to place his horses under the care of a new trainer. Quigley had been Stuart's connection to Harvey, but he's kept abreast of the poisoned horse's condition by Harvey's fetching, single daughter, Belladonna (yes, as in 'deadly nightshade'). Before you start assuming Second Wind will end

with wedding bells ringing for Stuart and Belladonna, though, let me say: she's already romantically linked to Stuart's high-flying friend, Ironside, though it's a fiery relationship not sanctioned by Harvey himself.

Following me so far? Good. We're almost done--just a couple more paragraphs.

Despite his grandmother's wise warnings to stay away from the race horse and everyone involved with its owner, Stuart meets up with Ironside in Florida, at the house of one of Harvey's wealthy American friends. Robin Darcy is an exotic mushroom / sod baron (yes, one must assume they do exist) with a generous side as a house host. Free room, free food, free booze: Stuart and Ironside seem to have the world on a string. But when Darcy offers to rent a plane so that Stuart and Ironside can fly through a developing hurricane (every meteorologist's dream, apparently, if not yours), the gesture seems too grand for even the best of hosts. Especially after Stuart learns that Darcy wants them to stop off at a place called Trox Island--a barren, tiny speck of land notable chiefly for its guano production--and take a few photographs. Darcy won't say why he needs the photographs, precisely, implying obscurely (and unconvincingly) that he's interested in mushrooms on the island. Then Stuart discovers that Darcy has actually bought, rather than rented, the plane, for this single flight.

Suspicious behavior, eh? But a meteorologist and a hurricane are hard to keep apart, apparently. Stuart can only hope, it seems, that Ironside (who's perfectly serviceable flying around England in sunny weather) is up to snuff when it comes to dashing through a Category Five hurricane--and finding a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

Francis, known for writing mysteries set around racetracks, is in uncharted territory this time out, but he's done his research well, and the flight through the hurricane rings true. But the high-adventure, teeth-chattering flight carries us only through the first third of the book, and to reveal anything of the rest would be unfair. In meteorological terms, 'second wind' refers to the heightened intensity of the second wall of wind and rain that strikes after a hurricane's eye has passed. By choosing it as his title, Francis apparently means to imply, metaphorically, that his mystery promises a second, unexpected onslaught after the hurricane--and he certainly delivers it. Second Wind takes several unexpected, startling turns before everything's finally resolved.

Second Wind isn't flawless, though. Some of Stuart's backstory seems a little too much like a storefront display, as if Francis is simply grafting details onto a blank character without making them feel natural and organic. And Stuart's motivation--particularly when it comes to flying through a hurricane with an amateur pilot--seems undeveloped. (Surely, he would mull over the decision at greater length than Francis allows him.) In general, Francis sometimes seems a little rushed and the book too much a thin artifice to hold up, particularly given the number of unexpected changes of direction his plot takes.

This is merely a mystery, of course; what Graham Greene would have called a light 'entertainment.' And we shouldn't grade it too harshly against the standards of a more serious genre. It is decidedly a fast, easy read. And, as Francis always manages to do, he's given his book that hard-to-define addictive quality without turning it into a cheap page-turner. He's a good, spare stylist, and the reader isn't forced to wade through weak prose to arrive at the solution breathless and beaten, in the tradition of too many easy bestsellers. But Francis has produced such wonderful mysteries in the past that the reader can't help wishing he'd accomplished a little more, this time out.


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