October 19, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

By now it’s no secret that Dick Francis — once a front-runner in the thriller sweepstakes-has slowed down. Not in productivity, mind you. He still turns out at least one mystery a year. But his books began to lose their snap, their canny pacing, in the late 1970s. And recently the same man who gave us such crackling racetrack winners as Nerve (1964) and Enquiry (1969) has tended to wander and dawdle — in overplotted whodunits like Hot Money (1988), in overproduced, cornball adventures like The Edge (1989).

So Longshot, like last fall’s Straight, comes as a relatively happy surprise: Francis is finally back on track, if not back in top form (which would be too much to expect). John Kendall, the youngish narrator here, is a rough-edged, good-hearted hero in the early Francis mold — a former travel writer, specializing in outdoor-survival manuals, who’s now struggling to make , ends meet as a fledgling novelist in London. John’s so needy, in fact, that he agrees to churn out an authorized bio of renowned racehorse-trainer Tremayne Vickers. A dull subject? Perhaps. And Vickers is irascible as well as vain. But the job includes ample room and board down at the trainer’s estate in Berkshire, complete with riding privileges at the Vickers stable.

Things don’t stay cushy for long, however. Just when John has gotten comfortable as a semipermanent houseguest, the entire neighborhood — and the Vickers family in particular — is shell-shocked by the discovery of the remains of Angela Brickell, a teenage stablehand who was known to have tried to seduce every man in sight…including Vickers’ neurotic adolescent son, Gareth (from a doomed second marriage). According to the police, the suspects include Vickers’ favorite jockey (a shameless womanizer), a local gentleman horse- owner, and Vickers himself. But John has other ideas, embarks on some shrewd solo sleuthing, and soon becomes the killer’s new target. Which means that our hero’s survival skills will come in very handy — when, for instance, he’s pierced through with an arrow in a remote forest and must somehow stagger his way home without bleeding to death.

Action like that — there’s also a near drowning — is vintage Francis, harking back to the grand agonies suffered by the equally plucky heroes of Bonecrack, Smokescreen, and Knockdown. Francis’ talent for old-fashioned English sentiment resurfaces here, too, in John’s’sender (yet reserved) relationships with lonely lad Gareth and with bittersweet Mackie, the pregnant but edgy wife of Vickers’ older son. Why complain, then, about the slow-moving plot or the lack of equestrian excitement? Be grateful, instead, for sturdy, decent work from an old pro just getting, maybe, his second wind. B


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