Not just one hero, but two, in latest Francis novel

Proof, by Dick Francis. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 334 pp. $16.95. ``Proof,'' the latest novel by Dick Francis, the British writer and former jockey, is everything a Dick Francis novel should be -- exciting, suspenseful, fast-paced, and intelligent. There is not just one attractive Francis hero, there are two. ``Proof'' displays neither the weak characterization nor the perfunctory descriptions that plagued last year's ``The Danger.'' And although horse racing takes a back seat to wine merchanting, theft, tax evasion, and murder, ``Proof'' is, as its publisher's advertisement states, vintage Dick Francis.

The book opens with a gruesome accident. A runaway horse trailer plows into a crowded lawn party tent at the home of a racehorse trainer named Jack Hawthorne. Although an important sheikh is killed, it is quickly established that the incident was not deliberate.

The accident, however, sets in motion a series of events that are crucial to the plot. The aftermath of the accident proves to the reader just how wrong the main character, a wine merchant (liquor-store owner) named Tony Beach, is in his assessment of his own nature. Contrary to his self-doubts, he is a very brave man, which he proves when he rescues survivors from the wreckage.

In the course of the rescue, Tony meets Gerard McGregor, a private detective whose firm specializes in industrial espionage. The trainer and host, Jack Hawthorne, is injured in the accident. This prompts his wife, Flora, to enlist Tony's aid in keeping an eye on the stables. The death in the accident of Larry Trent, owner of a local restaurant where suspect bottles of liquor have been served, prompts his henchmen to accelerate their criminal activities.

Thirty-two-year-old Tony Beach is a typically likable Francis hero. His self-doubts are the result of being the scion of a military and horse-racing family and showing little or no aptitude for either activity. Like some of the other Francis heroes, Tony is dealing with a personal tragedy: the death of his young and much loved wife six months earlier while she was pregnant with their first child. Tony's kind and tender nature is most in evidence when he is with Flora Hawthorne, a placid, maternal, middle-aged woman who helps Tony to cope with his grief as much as he helps her to cope with her husband's horse-racing business.

Gerard McGregor is an older version of the Francis hero, and he and Tony make an attractive sleuthing duo. Tony's expertise in identifying wines and whiskeys is enlisted by both Gerard's firm and the local police, who are investigating the same case from opposite ends: Gerard's firm has been hired by a transport company that has had three tankers of raw whiskey stolen and is in danger of going out of business. The police are investigating the sale of illegal bottles of wine and scotch bearing false labels.

There is a lot going on in ``Proof,'' and all of it is intriguing. The pace is brisk, the plot is complicated and suspenseful, and the characters, both good and bad, are very human. The bad guys are especially nasty, and with the usual Francis sense of justice, they get what they deserve. The good guys are rewarded, or at least the bad things are made better. Tony is rewarded with new friends and an improved sense of his own worth. I couldn't help wishing that Tony's grief will heal quickly and there will be a new source of joy in his life.

Perhaps Dick Francis will write a sequel to ``Proof'' featuring Tony Beach and Gerard McGregor, as he did for Sid Halley, his jockey-turned-private investigator, with ``Odds Against'' and ``Whip Hand.''

Jane Stewart Spitzer reviews crime novels for the Monitor.

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