Saratoga Backtalk

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Since 1976, Stephen Dobyn’s mysteries about the racing town of Saratoga Springs, New York, have featured Charlie Bradshaw, a policeman who turned in his badge to become a private detective. In SARATOGA BACKTALK, eighth in the series, Dobyns strays a bit from his formula. Bradshaw has jury duty, so his buddy Victor Klotz takes charge when wealthy horse farm owner Bernard Logan, who had sought the detective’s aid, is killed by a frenzied horse. Though Klotz as narrator is the focal point of the novel and does most of the legwork in the case, Bradshaw makes suggestions, solves the mystery, and provides the concluding explanations.

If Logan had not claimed that his young second wife and the farm foreman planned to kill him, his death would have been labeled accidental. Bradshaw and Klotz discover ample motives for his murder, including sibling rivalry, adultery, inheritance concerns, and corrupt business practices. Such motives, plus the isolated venue of the murders, the subsequent deaths that eliminate prime suspects, the two sleuths, and the detectives’ foiling of another crime as they are about to wrap up matters are common to traditional whodunits. Further, Dobyn’s racing milieu inevitably calls to mind the novels of Dick Francis; indeed a key modus operandi in the case comes directly from one of them.

Derivative though it is, SARATOGA BACKTALK is a compelling mystery, with an unpredictable denouement and the pervasive whimsy that is a Dobyns standard. Charlie Bradshaw, notwithstanding his supporting part, again adds a singular dimension; not at all the stereotypical eccentric and egotistical detective, he is a thoroughly likable, down to earth person, a world-weary outsider with a strong moral streak. Victor Klotz, by contrast, is an irresponsible wise guy, committed hedonist, and inveterate practical joker. The two make a good team, whichever of them plays the leading role.