A few years ago narcotics cop Elena Estes was drummed out of the force after a rash act of heroism on her part led to a colleague losing his life. Now she’s living off her very wealthy childhood friend Sean and vaguely assisting with the passel of horses he owns. (These horses are trained for equestrianism, not racing.)
One day a child, Molly Seabright, comes to Elena looking to hire her as a private detective. Molly’s elder sister Erin, a teenage groom at one of the local stables, has disappeared, and no one seems at all interested: their mother’s constantly stoned and anyway doesn’t want to irritate their stepfather, who’s a hard-hearted, self-absorbed swine. Meanwhile, the cops couldn’t care less because Erin’s legally an adult and anyway they’re lazy.
Despite misgivings, Elena takes Molly’s $10 retainer and the case . . .
The plot that Elena eventually lays bare is an immensely complicated one — or, really, it’s not just a single criminal scheme but an overlapping cluster of them, such that, by the time the great unraveling of crimes and motivations is over, there are very few of the principals left untainted by guilt of some sort. It’s perhaps because of this complexity that the book is so long — far too long, I’d say. (The page count’s a tad misleading, because there are a lot of words to the page in this edition.)
The early stages in particular seemed particularly tedious to me, as if Hoag had taken a hundred or a hundred fifty pages to settle herself into the book, then been insufficiently ruthless in trimming the result afterwards. A symptom of this was the adolescent-style smartass badinage the characters often engaged in, presumably in hopes of reducing the reader to a quivering jelly of uncontrollable mirth but in my case . . . well, they never quite got to the level of “No, it’s you who’s the poopy face!” but on occasion I felt this was just round the corner.
The later stages of the book were far, far better, I felt, and by the time I reached the final page I had that nice feeling of breathlessness the best thrillers can induce. This was impressive, and all the more so in that equestrianism is not one of those sports to which I’ve ever felt any warmth. (To be honest, I’ve never really regarded it as a sport before; Hoag did a very good job of disabusing me of my snooty misconception.)
I also liked the central character, Elena, a lot. To be sure, there’s a hazy line between feistiness and just being a pain in the ass, and sometimes she stepped over it (a real-life version would do so even more often and even more egregiously, I suspect), but the character has enough strength and interest that I was prepared to ignore those lapses.
It amused me that Hoag deployed the “had I but known . . .” mode of narrative a few times. Pleased me, too: It’s always a joy when genre writers acknowledge the earlier traditions of their genre.
Dark Horse is, for the reasons I’ve noted, some distance short of front-line Hoag, but the narrative does have her customary firmness of touch and the mystery is an enjoyably knotty one. A worthy effort.