By Kit Ehrman
A 2008 Hardcover release
from Poisoned Pen Press
A worthy successor to Dick Francis, this debut novel set in Maryland’s horse country is an excellent mystery. Stephen Cline has dropped out of college to become a barn manager at a sprawling stable called Foxdale Farms. He’s young for such responsibility, but several summers on a dude ranch as a kid and a good personality helps him make the grade.
The farm boards horses, conducts classes for new and young riders and is generally a hard but bucolic life. Then in the blink of an eye, Cline is kidnapped along with seven horses belonging to clients of the farm. Of course, he’s able to escape, but those are well-conceived, harrowing scenes. They set the pace for the rest of the book which trots along at a steady, ground-eating pace.
Ehrman has peopled this novel with a number of interesting and unusual characters, from the farm manager, Mrs. Hill, to a couple of horse owners who seem to have various under-handed irons in the fire, to some seriously creepy bad guys. Ehrman treats all the characters with care and there’s no detectible condescension or conscious effort to invest the perpetrators of murder and thievery with all the sins of the human race.
Cline has the normal kind of confrontations that one would expect of a person in his position which adds to the mystery without being overbearing. Cline’s personal life intersects with a couple of women, adding to the rhythms in a well-handled way. Readers will gain some insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of an enterprise like this, and some appreciation for the wiles and foibles of horses, some of whom become almost real characters in a story that gradually spins farther and farther out of control. Steve Cline, with the impetuousness of youth, gets more involved than he should in trying to do the police department’s job; he makes mistakes and he sometimes pays for them. But in the end, Cline is a real youth and his adventure is as real as crime fiction gets. Enjoyable and readers will welcome more horsy adventures with Steve Cline.