Page turners: Under Orders

At the racetrack, "death is not uncommon," says Sid Halley, champion jockey-turned-detective in Dick Francis's "Under Orders." But three in one afternoon is pushing the bounds of plausibility. Halley is investigating the third death at the Cheltenham Gold Cup: a jockey who was shot dead right after winning his race. The police's main suspect is Bill Burton, a horse trainer and old friend of Halley's (though friendship doesn't deafen Sid to rumors that Burton was throwing races). The investigation takes the one-handed sleuth into the world of race-fixing and Internet gambling, where, as usual, he manages to annoy powerful interests. Only this time, instead of going after Sid, they target his new girlfriend, Marina.

It's been 11 years since Halley's last outing, "Come to Grief," so that would be reason enough for joy. But "Under Orders" is also the first book in six years for three-time Edgar-winner Francis, and the first written since the passing of his wife, whom Francis credited as his collaborator. Long-time fans will recognize a number of the plot elements. And Marina is heavy on nice qualities (beauty, brains, bravery) and light on personality. Even so, "Orders" is a fine addition to Francis's stables. Besides, six years is a long time to go with no horse-racing puns. Fans should join in a rousing chorus of "Back in the Saddle Again," to welcome back one of mystery's grand masters. Grade: B

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