If you like Dick Francis mysteries, you will love this new book by Kit Ehrman. She has worked as a groom, veterinary assistant, and barn manager in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and you can tell she knows the details behind the racing game and horse care intimately. Interwoven in the fabric of an exciting crime drama is a gritty and realistic depiction of what life is like for backside workers. Even if you aren't into fiction, you should read this book just to get a good appreciation for how hard those people work and the horrible conditions they have to live in.
The story is a sequel to her previous book At Risk, but reading that one is not necessary as enough background information is provided to jump right it. The main character, Steve Cline, is still recovering from the injuries he received in the first book when his estranged father dies in a car crash. At the funeral, he discovers that the man he always thought was his father is not and that his mother had an affair. He finds out his real father was a race horse trainer named Christopher Kessler at the fictional Washington Park (appears to be based on Laurel Park in Maryland) and tracks him down. After some confusion, the two get together and start to get to know each other. Someone is threatening Kessler and his horses if he won't play along with a race fixing scheme, and they have even gotten to some of his horses and doped them to lose races. He asks Steve to come and work for him on the backside to see if he can find out anything.
Steve starts to work as a hotwalker, one of the lowest of backside workers, so he is in a position to be around all the horses to keep an eye on things. The work is brutal, especially in the hot summer, and the dirty, roach infested dorm room provided by the track is even worse. He struggles through the exhausting work and learns about his fellow workers in Kessler's barn. Most have few skills and little education and are stuck in this type of dead-end work, but are generally dedicated to the horses they work with. Steve starts sleeping in the stall of the next horse to run, hoping to ward off any attacks on the horses, but they still get to one of the horses when he is gone for a short while. He finds the lump on the horse's neck from an injection and the syringe dropped in the bedding, which he tries to get to Kessler. However the bad guys realize the syringe was lost and come back for it, kidnapping Steve and drugging him to find out where the syringe is and what they know.
After this, the action starts moving faster as they bring in the TRPB (Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau) to help with the investigation, although that doesn't seem to help much. One of the grooms, a girl he had a one night stand with, is found dead in a stall, and Steve is the main suspect. Ultimately, Steve does find out who the ringleader is and brings them to justice. He also starts to develop a closer relationship with the biological father he never knew and to understand why his father was so distant when he was growing up.
This books holds your interest from beginning to end with characters you can sympathize with and situations you will find familiar if you are a racing fan. You go from the highs of a horse who was claimed and has been turned around to win at long odds because his new form was hidden to the lows of having your top filly gotten to before the big stakes race and having to scratch her. You also find out more about how the routine of the backside works and the types of characters who live there. Holding this all together, is a great mystery story that is well written and fun to read.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Dick Francis or John Francome books or who is looking for something light and entertaining to read. It is also good for anyone who doesn't understand how the horses are taken care of and the back breaking work it entails and the horrible conditions the people doing it have to live under.
Dead Man's Touch has a list price of $24.95 but can be purchased from Amazon.com, for $16.97.
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