Dick Francis, master of mysterious beginnings

First published on PenWarrions.comTwice Shy by Dick Francis

I told the boys to stay quiet while I went to fetch my gun. (Twice Shy)

When I read those first words of Twice Shy by  Dick Francis, my immediate thought was, “Now there’s a powerful opening hook!”  Then I put the thought aside and kept on reading, because first and foremost I love a good story. Time enough to analyze how Francis hooked me and try (hope) to bring that power to my own writing after I’d read the story. 

So began my study of beginnings. The opening hooks I loved most were the ones that not only promised, but also delivered an amazing read. Many of them were written by Dick Francis.

E. C. Sheedy introduced me to the idea of searching for the power words in writing that impresses me. Gun is definitely a powerful word, associated with violence and death. Paired with boys, which implies youth, it becomes even more dangerous and powerful. The command to stay quiet implies a threat, increasing the dangerous stakes.

In seventeen words, Dick Francis completely hooked me. When the next paragraph reveales that the first person narrator is a Physics teacher in a boys school, using the gun as a prop for a lesson on ballistics, I’m even more intrigued. I know the gun is going to be important – after all, this is a mystery. The narrator will be the detective character, and I’ll be staying up late to read this book.

Dick Francis didn’t disappoint me.

I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder. (Hot Money )

Hot Money begins with the above statement by jockey Ian Pembroke, whose mother was his father’s second wife. I love the way the author blends powerful words  like intensely, disliked and murder with details that skillfully reveal the murdered wife was preceded by four others, one of whom will be Ian’s mother. I anticipate family discord, and I expect Ian to be the innocent prime suspect.

Hot Money delivers on the promise of its opening sentence with a delightfully complex family arranged in factions around three ex-wives, an intriguing mystery, and the delight of discovering Ian’s complex relationship with the father who, when his own life is threatened, turns for help to his estranged son – the one person everyone else suspects of the murder.

Here are a few more great openings from Dick Francis novels:

Dying slowly of bone cancer, the old man, shrivelled now, sat as ever in his great armchair, tears of lonely pain sliding down crepuscular cheeks. (Wild Horses)

I had told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead. (Driving Force)

I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault. (To the Hilt)

StraightAnd then there’s Straight, which I believe is Dick Francis’ most brilliantly crafted novel:

I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me. ( Straight)

The violence implied by killed is preceded by a tantalizing blend of what seem to be small details (his desk, his gadgets) and the threat implied in inheriting his enemies and his mistress.

What elevates this book beyond the status of a truly great mystery is the way every one of those inherited items became meaningful: not only in solving a murder, but also in painting the evocative portrait of the uncompromisingly Straight man whose death preceded the story’s beginning.

Dick Francis was a master who continues to fascinate me. Every time I re-read one of his novels I hope to soak up some of the magic of his storytelling.

Dick Francis died on February 24, 2010, survived by two sons and a legacy of best-selling mysteries. The fascinating story of his life and its real-life mystery is revealed in family friend Graham Lord’s biography Dick Francis: A Racing Life, which I discovered (and bought) while writing this blog.

Chocolate Mousse Attack – book review

Chocolate Mousse Attack (Death by Chocolate)Chocolate Mousse Attack by Sally Berneathy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chocolate Mousse Attack is my first Sally Berneathy chocolate mystery, and I’m hooked. Divorced chocolatier Lindsay is awoken at 2 am by an urgent phone call from a neighbor Fred. The woman who just moved in across the street a few hours ago has sleepwalked straight into Fred’s house, wearing only a thin nightgown. Fred can’t get her out of his bedroom closet, and he needs Lindsay’s help. But when the two of them manage to get Sophie Fleming out of the closet, they discover it’s more than a little sleepwalking.

Sophie had a nightmare that Lindsay and Fred soon realize must be more than fantasy. It’s murder.

Sally Berneathy has created a very likeable amateur detective character with Lindsay, and great sidekick in Fred-the-neighbor with his old car, sober manner, and hacker’s knack for digging out secrets online. Add King Henry, the stray cat who adopted Lindsay and knows more than a feline should, and Lindsay’s boyfriend – a cop who refuses to cancel her speeding tickets – and it’s no wonder I’ve just fallen in love with Berneathy’s Death by Chocolate series.

I won’t add any spoilers, but if you like your mysteries with a touch of laughter, and a great cast of characters, you can’t do better than to check out Chocolate Mousse Attack.

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A Question of Fire – Book Review

A Question of FireA Question of Fire by Karen McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed Karen McCullough’s romantic suspense A Question of Fire.

Reporter Cathy Bennett knows she’s out of her element filling in for her newspaper’s society editor at a party for the city’s elite, but she certainly doesn’t expect to end the evening sitting on the grass holding a dead man’s hand. Before he was murdered by a gunshot that echoed through the night, the young man now dead on the elegant lawn gave Cathy a message for lawyer Peter Lowell.

“Danny was framed. I’ve got the proof.”

Cathy and Peter are thrown together in a quest to prove the innocence of Peter’s young client Danny, surrounded by a landscape of lies and deception, arson and murder, with just enough information to expose them to the criminal perpetrators hunting for the missing Danny.

Karen McCullough has crafted an enjoyable and suspenseful quest for the truth about the murder of a young man named Bobby, a man named Danny falsely accused of arson, a mysterious private detective, and a web of crime … and let’s not forget the romantic touch of love that makes this an especially satisfying read.

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Stalking Season – Book Review

Stalking SeasonStalking Season by Maryann Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Detective Sarah Kingsly’s new partnership with Angel Johnson certainly isn’t a match made in heaven, but the two homicide cops have no choice but to work together when the corpse of a young girl from an upper-class family is found in a sleazy motel. Sarah and Angel have just begun investigating when the killer strikes again, and the two women struggle with their own differences, trying to find a balance of trust for each other and nail the killer before someone else dies.

I read Maryann Miller’s “Stalking Season” knowing it was the second book in a series, and wondering if I should read book one first. I needn’t have worried, Stalking Season caught my interest from the first page. I loved the complex realism of the personal and family issues facing Angel, and Sarah’s determination to come to terms with a past she can’t change and a partner she doesn’t understand.

High stakes, a difficult partnership, and a fight for justice – Stalking Season is an intriguing mystery with a satisfying conclusion, and a crime-fighting pair who achieve a realistic blend of conflict and mutual respect that should keep the series going. I’m looking forward to reading more.


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Reckless Promise – Book Review

Reckless PromiseReckless Promise by Jenny Andersen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being labeled a beautiful bimbo drives Poppy Grayson nuts

Poppy’s a serious scientist, a genetics expert with a Ph.D. and – until recently – a tenure track position at a prestigious Boston university. But Poppy’s also an impulsive redhead, and she’s sick and tired of being the target of other women’s jealousy because of her looks.

Desperate to escape the unfair “Other Woman” crisis that lost her the best job she ever had, Poppy impulsively agrees to help a friend-of-a-friend save his marriage – and ends up stranded on a Montana ranch in an impossible situation when her client’s wife calls for help.

This feel-good romp is set on a wild Montana ranch where some great characters help – and hinder – the course of true love. Take one sexy redhead named Poppy and add a hothead cynic who thinks he’s done with love. Mix with an escalating cluster of suspicions and miscommunications. Result – a fun romance and some great scenery.

I spent an enjoyable evening reading this light romance, with the added bonus that it brought back pleasant memories of my own years living in remote places.

Thanks, Jenny Andersen, for a fun read.


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A Man for Grace – book review

A Man for Grace  (Salt Spring Island Friends Trilogy Book 3)A Man for Grace by E. C. Sheedy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

E. C. Sheedy’s latest “Salt Spring Island Friends” book is a winner!

Grace is a lovely heroine, an Island girl and a delicious mix of wholesome sexiness, humor, and straight-forward wisdom. EC Sheedy drops sexy Colin Ross on Grace’s doorstep, the man who vowed he was never going to return to Salt Spring, and stirs up a hot surge of mutual lust and family baggage.

EC Sheedy specializes in blending sympathetic characters, sensuality, and very believable emotional tangles. I loved this book. Colin and his baggage-ridden family pulled at my heartstrings while the positive thread of love – and healthy lust – running through the book kept me turning pages way past my bedtime last night :).

This brand new book by E. C. Sheedy is set on Salt Spring island, one of my favorite Canadian Pacific Northwest Island destinations. I loved the authentic island setting, and especially enjoyed revisiting some of the characters from this trilogy’s Book 1 California Man, and Book 2 Man for the Morning

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Blazing Nights – book review

Blazing Nights (Night Games #1)Blazing Nights by Linda Barlow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this sexy romance and appreciated the author’s skillful handling of the paranormal elements.

Hero and heroine each begin this story with personal challenges they must overcome to achieve a happy ending. Kate is an actress, and very protective of her psychic mother. Daniel is both sexy and intelligent, but unfortunately for Kate, he’s also a professional psychic debunker determined to expose her mother. I loved Kate’s mother, a gracefully aging psychic with a strong thread of wisdom running through her deceptively innocent and trusting nature.

Blazing Nights is a sweet, sexy romance with a hero who looks like he might not make the grade, until love triumphs over his past baggage and he comes through for both Kate and her family. Blazing Nights is Book One of Linda Barlow’s Night Games series, and includes a free sample of the next book in the series – Wicked Nights.


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My Deja Vu Lover – book review

My Deja Vu LoverMy Deja Vu Lover by Phoebe Matthews

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The first time I saw the accident was on Tuesday afternoon.” So begins MY DEJA VU LOVER, a fascinating blend of paranormal, psychological suspense, and romance.

This story drew me in slowly as hints of darkness provided an enticing foil for the innocent spirit of the heroine, April, and her three closest friends.

Were April’s visions of a woman named Silver and a mysterious man named Lawrence buried memories, or the kind of seductive delusion that led to madness? When April’s present-day life began to echo her waking dreams of Silver and Lawrence, my suspense grew to page-turning compulsion.

In MY DEJA VU LOVER, Phoebe Matthews has created a fascinating multifaceted story in which a hint of Maeve Binchy’s gentleness pulses with a touch of the psychologically dark obsession of a Barbara Vine novel.

All that, and a great ending! I’m thrilled to have discovered Phoebe Matthews, and I’ll definitely be reading more of this talented author.


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The Disappeared – book review

The Disappeared (Retrieval Artist, #1)The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. I thought I’d become jaded about reading Sci-Fi, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch changed my mind with The Disappeared, first in the Retrieval Artist series.

When I spotted this book a few days ago on a promotion and saw it was the first book in Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series, I bought the eBook and started reading right away. Some years ago I’d enjoyed audio versions of one of Rusch’s Retrieval Artist short stories, and was eager to read the first book.

Wow! Rusch is a skilled, highly-readable author who is an expert in bringing characters to life on the page (eScreen?). Immediately, I was entangled in the dilemna of a woman about to Disappear from a life she loved, and the tragedy of a couple whose baby was mysteriously stolen.

I needed to discover the reason for the woman’s disappearance, the fate of the baby. I was fascinated by the world Rusch created, and the moral dilemma of good people wrestling with right and wrong in a world where the law allowed children to be stolen from their parents, where humans could unwittingly cross a line that doomed them to devastating legal consequences meted out under multi-species legal agreements.

Rusch paired a burned-out investigator with a brilliant rookie detective whose personal tragedy forces him to examine everything he believes. The author has created a masterpiece!

Now I’m ready for book 2 of the Retrieval Artist series. It’s waiting for me on my eReader.

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The Truth About Trish – free this weekend

the-truth-about-trish600x900My romance novel The Truth About Trish is enjoying a “free” promotion on Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords this weekend.

It seems a suitable time for this particular title to be on free, as I’m giving a workshop today on character-driven plotting, and pacing to maintain tension – and this story was very much a result of character-driven plotting, because I had to dig deep into the characters of Abby (the heroine) and Ryan (her hero) in writing their story.

So pick up a copy and enjoy – and for those of you with Kindles, although Trish is priced at $.99 on Amazon, you can get your free kindle version at Smashwords.