Train Thriller Not on Track

THE EDGE, By Dick Francis. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 324 pp. $18.95 HIS record is impressive. After a near-fatal riding accident ``put paid'' to his career as a champion steeplechase jockey, Dick Francis took his intimate knowledge of the racing world and translated it into another winning profession, that of writing mystery/thrillers. ``The Edge'' is Francis's 29th offering and his latest in a string of international best-sellers.

Set aboard a Canadian Transcontinental Mystery Race Train, ``The Edge'' contains all the components of a classic Francis thriller: a very unctuous, very rich, very evil villain; a nice, ordinary guy turned hero; horses; horse owners; racetracks; and a girl.

Tor Kelsey - the hero - is a Jockey Club investigator with a skill for blending into the background and seeing things that other people might overlook. Disguised as a waiter, he travels from Ottawa to Vancouver for the purpose of thwarting the schemes of the Machiavellian Mr. Julius Filmer, a man with a penchant for blackmail and murder. The difficulty for Tor lies in the fact that he has no idea how or when Mr. Filmer may strike.

Often Francis's novels begin with a bang, with the discovery of some horrific incident that jolts the protagonist into heroic action. But ``The Edge'' begins slowly and has a hard time getting rolling as Francis meticulously sets the scene and assembles the cast for his drama.

As ever, Francis writes in whistle-clean, economical prose, with a deft turn of phrase. And his first person narrative style is embracing and engaging.

But somewhere between Ottawa and Vancouver, the thrill in this thriller gets derailed.

Perhaps the difficulty lies in the premise - not all people are as unnoticing as Francis wants us to believe, and so the chameleon-man concept doesn't work. Or maybe it's that Francis reveals the villain at the outset, thus diluting this mystery's mystique.

It could be that the hero, Tor Kelsey, is so adept at becoming one with the wallpaper that the reader cannot come to know and like him because there's very little to know and like.

But whether the problem is just one of the above or a combination of all three, ``The Edge'' is one racing mystery that doesn't keep suspense on track.

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