I know Francis wasn’t Canadian but I am including this book as the 10th in my Canadian Book Challenge because it is not only set there but celebrates the natural beauty of the country via its depiction of a great train journey from the east to west coast.
In a recent court case against English racing identity Julius Filmer for conspiracy to murder all the prosecution witnesses mysteriously disappeared or ‘forgot’ their evidence and he was acquitted. When he gets himself on board the The Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train which will take a week to cross Canada from Toronto to Vancouver full of international race horse owners and their horses people in authority are worried about what he plans. They ask Tor Kelsey, who works for the British Jockey Club’s security services to go on the train undercover to prevent Filmer from doing anything to disrupt the train or the events planned in towns across the country.
This is a re-read for me as I bought a bunch of Dick Francis audio books on sale recently and happily it is as good as I remember. What I like most about it is the really thoughtful characterisations. Tor Kelsey, who is independently wealthy but works anyway ‘to avoid the temptation of being able to have every sweet in the sweet shop’ is a typical Francis protagonist: intelligent, self-reliant, morally sound without being self-righteous and also has a sense of humour. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of character as unrealistic but apart from liking to think there are good people in the world I was struck by the credibility of Tor’s thoughts and actions all the way along. At one point in the story for example things are set up for two trains to crash and when Tor, given the task of stopping one of the trains before it rams the other, believes he has failed his emotional response is very real indeed. He not only worries about the possible injuries and damage but can also see into his own future and predict how terrible it will be to have to live with his failure every day. That combination of self-interest and concern for others felt very realistic to me.
Among the passengers on the train is the Lorimer family who are very wealthy and well-known but are happy to ‘do their bit for the good of Canadian racing’. Mercer, his wife Bambi and their two teenage children appear to have it all but as the story progresses the pain that the family is experiencing is teased out in a very touching way. The character of Filmer in some ways is very under-developed because we actually don’t see much of him until the end but it seems to me that he is explored via his impact on those around him as he sets out to exploit people’s fears over the possibility of having their personal secrets revealed.
As always with a Dick Francis novel there is lots of great detail about his chosen subjects, this time train trivia features prominently as do wonderful descriptions of Canada that made me want to get my passport out immediately. The plot is, of course, resolved very satisfactorily though there is some sadness too and overall I think this is one of Francis’ best yarns.
What about the audio book?
Tony Britton, who has narrated a bunch of Francis’ novels, again does a great job, especially has he’s had to include a load of accents (Canadians might disagree that these are realistic but I don’t know the accent well enough to spot this and thought he did a fine job). I gather this recording has been transferred from an older format to a digital one and there is a bit of background noise (tape hiss?) that is audible at some points but not nearly enough to bother me.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4/5
Narrator Tony Britton
Publisher BBC WW [this edition 2005, original edition 1988]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 11 hours 23 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Source I bought it