Buck Clegg is not your typical mystery novel detective. In fact, he admits he isn't a detective at all. Once one of the best quarter-horse jockeys in the country, he's now a jockey's agent (following too many bad spills, busted bones, amphetamines, whiskey and one broken marriage).
When an old friend, Charlie Vann, asks for Clegg's help, however, the ex-rider doesn't think twice. Vann's top quarter horse, Jim Ned--ridden to record-setting glory by Clegg years ago, and now gone to stud--has been kidnapped in Oklahoma, rendering Clegg a reluctant detective.
That's the basis of Tucson resident Fred Grove's latest novel, the fast-paced, easy-to-read and unconventional A Distance of Ground. Octogenarian Grove isn't your typical mystery writer, but he's among the most honored Western writers in America today. He's won five Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, two Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, a Distinguished Service Award from Western New Mexico University (for fiction about the Apache frontier), the Oklahoma Writing Award from the University of Oklahoma, and the Levi Strauss Golden Saddleman Award.
A Distance of Ground is Grove's 24th novel in a career that spans more than 40 years. Part contemporary western and part mystery, the novel showcases Grove's knowledge of the modern horse-racing scene as Clegg travels from the Oklahoma City area to Ruidoso, New Mexico, trying to nab Jim Ned from the kidnappers.
Fans of quarter-horse racing will find the novel especially enjoyable. The book's title comes from a horse-racing term: "The modern quarter horse also packs Thoroughbred blood," narrator Clegg explains, "which enables him to reach out there and cover a distance of ground, as folks in the game say of a long-running horse with speed left for the stretch drive."
Grove is equally adept at painting scenes of Oklahoma and New Mexico horse country. Consider this description of Ruidoso:
In spring and summer, Ruidoso is like a magnet drawing horsemen off the hot Oklahoma and Texas plains to the cool pines of the Sacramento Mountains. On stakes-race weekends, it swells from a small village to a frenzy of thousands, mainly free-spending Okies and Texans mixed with just plain tourists, swarming in to bet and enjoy the scented air, and stroll along the main pathway called Sudderth Drive, and pack the eating places. They drive Cadillacs, Lincolns, customized vans, motorhomes, and fast pickups. The horsemen wear big hats and big buckles over big paunches, and the women still go for turquoise jewelry. All come to watch and bet the world's fastest quarter horses run for the world's biggest purses.
Anyone ever stuck on Sudderth during the summer can attest to that paragraph's veracity.
Although working with the authorities, Clegg and Vann try, at first, to cooperate with the kidnappers. They deliver a ransom, but soon come to understand these thieves have no intention of returning Jim Ned to Vann. The apparent leader of the kidnappers, a cocky man with a rich baritone whom Clegg calls "Golden Voice," calls the ransom demand and even Vann's reward offer "peanuts" compared with what he can get for the star horse. Despite nearly getting killed delivering the ransom, Clegg refuses to give up and follows the kidnappers' trail from Oklahoma to New Mexico.
Shootouts, high-speed car chases, an attempt on Clegg's life at Ruidoso Downs, a restaurant fist fight and a climactic race pitting horse against machine will please action fans. There's even a believable semi-romance in a subplot involving Clegg and his ex-wife, now a country-music star who, coincidentally, is performing a long engagement in Ruidoso when Clegg returns in pursuit of horse thieves.
Despite a complicated plot that involves drug-running, cocaine addiction and one messy suicide, A Distance of Ground is suitable for a wide audience. There's no sex, and violence and profanity are kept to a minimum--not really a surprise considering Maine-based publisher Five Star aims primarily for the library market. And at 260 pages, the novel is a perfect bed or pool-side read.
Author Grove will never earn comparisons to mystery stalwarts like Raymond Chandler or Tony Hillermann (or for that matter, horse-racing mystery veteran Dick Francis), but this nonetheless enjoyable departure will hardly come as a surprise to fans of his best westerns. Grove has always displayed a wide range in fiction, from the Civil War (Bitter Trumpet and No Bugles, No Glory), Southwest Indian wars (Phantom Warrior, A Far Trumpet), and the Roaring '20s in Oklahoma (Warrior Road and Drums Without Warriors).
In A Distance of Ground, Fred Grove has written another winner, long on characterization if short on plot twists. It isn't a classic, but it's a long shot that pays off handsomely.