Charles Todd is a painter visiting his cousin Donald for a few days. When he arrives, he finds Donald's wife has just been killed interrupting a robbery at their house. Emotionally and financially, Donald is completely broken--and to add insult to injury, the police suspect Donald of the crime. To help his cousin get his life back together, Charles decides to find the real killers.
In the Frame is another great read from Dick Francis. To the Hilt was one of my favorite reads of 2010; and while In the Frame isn't quite as perfect as that book (seriously, I called To the Hilt perfect--you know I really loved that one), it is still really really good. I loved the characters, settings, the story was never ever boring, and the book was very emotional, as well. Donald's struggle with grief while being investigated for his wife's murder was just awful, and I really felt for him and Charles, who is extremely worried about him. Francis does a great job of making Charles' subsequent actions totally understandable.
This is also--I think--the first novel I've read that takes place in Australia (note to self: remedy this), and I LOVED the setting. You can tell Francis really thought about how the setting would work with the story and did a lot of research into it. Usually setting descriptions make my eyes glaze over, but in this case I thought they were just brief enough to let me paint a picture of the scene in my mind.
Like To the Hilt, the main character in In the Frame is a painter. I ADORE how Francis writes painters. Usually in books with painters, even the ones I like, the painter never actually works, or even thinks about painting. Not so with this book! Charles paints, a lot, and when he's not painting he's thinking and talking about art. I loved this exchange between him and his friend and fellow artist, Jik:
"Get that chiaroscuro," Jik said, as we sped into one particularly spectacular curving alley.
"What's chiaroscuro?" Sarah asked.
"Light and shade," Jik said. "Contrast and balance. Technical term. All the world's a chiaroscuro, and all the men and women merely blobs of light and shade."
"Every life's a chiaroscuro," I said.
"And every soul."
"The enemy," I said, "is gray."
"All the world's a chiaroscuro." Love that line! It seems like art is always on Jik's and Charles's minds, even when they're focusing on something else. Painting is a part of their personalities and how they view the world, like Shakespeare might have viewed all the world a stage.
One of the major differences between In the Frame and To the Hilt is that To the Hilt is very much a story modeled after Arthurian romances, with knights in shining armor fighting in the service of lords and ladies. In the Frame isn't like that at all--it reminded me more of those suspense novels by Mary Stewart, with a small cast of characters and a lot of traveling to exotic locales. There's only one major female character and, unlike in To the Hilt, there's no need to fight for her honor; she's not a damsel in distress by any means, although she is presented as a civilizing--and thereby stifling--force on Jik's personality and creativity. I did love the dynamic between Jik and Charles, though, because they're two sides of the same coin: Jik is an unpredictable, ambitious, flamboyant avant-garde artist, who only paints when he's in a dark mood. Charles seems like the exact opposite: he works steadily, paints marketable pictures of horses, and is always calm and friendly. In other words, he is the antithesis of someone who would go haring off to Australia to chase thieves and murderers, get shot at and beaten up (is it just me or are Francis's heroes always getting beat up?), steal things, or outsmart a bunch of crooks. Yet somehow his friendship with Jik makes him doing so entirely plausible.
Just as a side note, In the Frame is a bit dated--it was first published in 1976. It doesn't feel THAT old, but there are no cell phones, no internets, airport security is a free-for-all, no one outside of Australia has ever heard of Australian wine, and Charles is astonished at making an overseas phone call (the voice is so clear!). Other than those few technical issues, though, I found the story to be just as plausible today as it might have been in the past, and it's damn good mystery. Francis has definitely earned my admiration and I'm planning to read more novels by him in the future.
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