Sunday, March 25, 2012
Review: Racing from Death, a new Nikki Latrelle Racing Mystery
Cover of Sasscer Hill's second Nikki Latrelle racing mystery
This is a major new talent and the comparisons to Dick Francis are not hyperbole.–Margaret Maron, New York Times Best-Selling Author
Wildside Press, Paper. Feb 2012. ISBN: 978-1-4344-4040-2. Wildsidebooks.com
Sasscer Hill claims her Nikki Latrelle racing mysteries fit into a niche sub-genre. True, for horse-racing enthusiasts, they satisfy a known appetite, but you don’t have to know a thing about horses to enjoy Nikki’s trials and tribulations and eventual crossing the finish line in a lively, breath-taking mystery.
I was eager to read the second novel. The first, Full Mortality (Wildside, 2010), an Agatha and Mccavity nominee for first best mystery, I thoroughly enjoyed (see my blog post of May 8, 2011).
Nikki takes six of the horses in the stable of her trainer, Jim Ravinsky, to the Colonial Downs track in Virginia. With her go her friend Lorna Doone, a former addict, who can only keep her exercise riders license if she stays clean, and an old black man, Mello Pinkney, who has a sixth sense both about people and horses. He is especially close to Hellish, the horse Nikki saved form the glue factory in Full Mortality. Right before she left, a jockey named Paco Martinez died at the Laurel Park track, apparently from a drug he took to keep his weight down.
Greeting her soon after she arrives at the Virginia track is Jay Cormack, the Chief Investigator for the Virginia Racing Commission. He pressures her to spy for him, as he suspects drugs are behind the jockey’s death. She refuses, but he won’t give up. He trusts her and threatens that, if she doesn’t help him, he could throw her off the track because of Hellish’s disruptive behavior and an old felony conviction of Mello’s.
Reluctantly Nikki takes his card. At the cottage arranged for them, Nikki’s cat, Slippers, picks up her own sidekick, a rooster which Lorna dubs McNuggett. Lorna is drawn to a local wild rich boy named Bobby Duvayne, like a moth to a candle. Nikki understands her attraction because she feels similarly beguiled by Bobby, and she warns Lorna to stay away from him, to no avail. Then Lorna comes back from her night with Bobby hopelessly enamored, and stoned.
To top it off, two new horses arrive from Ravinsky’s training stable, Stinger and Daffodil. Their spoiled, imperious, insensitive owner, Amarilla Chaquette, whom Nikki likens to a yellow jacket, has not one whit of understanding about how to treat and race her horses, and she is contemptuous of Nikki’s savvy and attempts to help her horses win races.
Creepy and inexplicable things begin to happen until it’s very clear that something is terribly wrong at this track, and Nikki is drawn into the middle of it.
As in Dick Francis’s novels, Nikki’s life and circumstances as a jockey and an exercise rider, pull us into the racing pace of Hill’s books. I love the off-beat characters like Lorna and Mello, including the cat and the rooster. I learn about a world unfamiliar to me, one thing I look for in a good mystery. I easily identify with Nikki, who doesn’t want to rat on anyone but has a strong sense of justice and an impulse to help those human and animal beings who need a lift up. She’s also a fierce fighter, once aroused.
A favorite scene of mine in this book takes place when Nikki attends a very posh party among the rich owners and powers that be in this Virginia setting, all in honor of Chaquette. The contrast between Nikki’s unpretentiousness and the inflated sense of their importance among these rich folks adds a rich humor to the book.
May Sasscer Hill’s books continue to win all the nominations and awards they deserve.