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This stirring first mystery is set in Maryland's rich horse country where Steve Cline seems, at twenty-one, much too young to be in charge of a major stable. Seasoned by summers on a dude ranch, his skills and stamina are sorely tested when he's hijacked early one morning along with some of the stable's horses. His escape turns him into a killer's target in an environment where a complex scheme develops and everyone, no matter how innocent, courts risks . . .
an excerpt . . .
After the day’s work was done, and with security high on my list of pressing concerns, I methodically walked around the farm, looking for weaknesses in our defenses. First stop, the implement building. I crossed over to the wall that enclosed the small storage room and flicked on the lights. Because the fixtures were widely spaced and partially blocked by the hay mow, the work area was poorly-lit with heavy, deep shadows under the equipment.
I squeezed behind the row of tractors, ducked under the hay elevator, and looked up at the massive wall of hay. Large quantities of it. All highly combustible. For that reason, even though it was a pain in the ass to haul, we only stored a day’s worth in the barns. I would get Dave to hang more fire extinguishers near the entrance, but what good it would do, I couldn’t imagine. If they decided to burn down the building, it would be at night when no one was around. If they decided to burn down a barn. . . . Well, I couldn’t even think about that.
The smeared, sick graffiti seemed even more threatening at night. I backtracked, switched off the lights, and wondered if they’d been bold enough to turn them on while they spray-painted their little message. For the umpteenth time, I wondered who they were and why were they messing with Foxdale. And would they be back?
I followed the lane past the implement building and looked toward the old paved road. It dead-ended to my left, at a barricaded fire road that marked the western boundary of a wide swath of state park land. All of those unspoiled acres and the river that wound through it attracted boarders as much as anything else. Only Foxdale’s employees and an occasional truck from the mushroom farm frequented this part of the farm. It wouldn’t take much fencing and a couple of gates to prevent anyone getting onto the farm from the road, but if someone really wanted to hurt Foxdale, chains and locks and gates across the driveway wouldn’t make any difference.
I slipped my hands into my pockets and headed back. A horse was being led into barn A, his figure back-lit by the soft light that poured through the open doors. Even at that distance, I could clearly hear his shoes scraping the asphalt.
I checked barn B. Short of installing better locks and adding more fire extinguishers, I couldn’t think of anything else we could do to improve security. Outside, I looked at the grain bin that towered high above my head and thought about poison. If someone wanted to contaminate the grain, they would have to climb up a narrow ladder to reach the valve at the top. Thirty feet up. Thirty feet of flimsy metal ladder in the dark.
There were easier ways to ruin Foxdale. With a match, for one.
Reprinted from The Drood Review
At Heart, We're All Young
Jeanne M. Jacobson
At a time when the population of mystery readers may be experiencing an elder boom, with an accompanying increase in fictional senior sleuths (personal favorites: Constentine's Mario Balzic, Hart's Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins, and Havill's Bill Gastner) is it risky for Kit Ehrman to open this series with a 21-year-old protagonist?
At best, only a small fraction of first novels turn out to be first in a series (why assume that success for AT RISK?) The overarching reason is that its author is thoughtful and clever, as well as skilled. Ehrman's writing is unobtrusively crisp; Poisoned Pen's editing of the pre-publication review copy is almost flawless. The plot is intricate, intriguing, and solid in the best traditional style, focusing on good people working to solve and prevent crime, rather than on the grossness of serial crimes and the crazed minds of criminals. When the mystery ends, in wholly satisfactory fashion, a sizable crew of characters remains at work or at bay (a throng of delightful people and several vividly unpleasant folk are available for future appearances) and, in a neat twist, one of the criminals remains at large. Best of all, the protagonist is young, with all the energy and courage and folly of youth. And no reader is too old to recall, with relish, younger days.
At one time, mystery readers followed the adventures of a battered knight on a spavined steed (John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee.) Steve Cline is barn manager of Foxdale Stables, boss of a large and varied crew, colleague or subordinate of other staff and clients, including those who regard him as ripe for bullying or for sexual pursuit. He's a college dropout by choice, the youngest child of wealthy and overbearing parents who've disowned him, so hardworking that the absentee stable owner is no longer going to have his expected loss for a tax write-off. The high-priced horses he cares for are not spavined steeds, but Steve is a modern knight (clean living, though occasionally succumbing to temptations of the flesh; clean spoken, with such a narrow range of epithets that a muttered "bastards!" is his usual response to sadistic treatment, tender and protective with his pretty and courageous Rachel.
At a crucial point in the mystery an experienced police investigator admonishes Steve: "Your impulsiveness negates your intelligence." True, but that's part of his appeal. He's bright enough to figure out all sorts of criminal-catching strategies and energetic enough to plunge into them while also working hard and falling in love. He's courageous (impulsive, foolish) enough to take those plunges and young enough and strong enough and lucky enough to survive.
REVIEWS . . .
"It's amazing what horses can do for a mystery. Kit Ehrman's debut novel, AT RISK, reeks of authen-ticity, and the hunters and jumpers that are boarded at this no-frills garage have personality to burn. When seven of these horses are stolen in the dead of night, Stephen Cline, the 21-year-old barn manager . . . in the honored tradition of a Dick Francis hero, vows to track down the thieves..."
~ The New York Times
"The smart money could make the unusually likable protagonist a favorite in the Francis Stakes."
"Both horse lovers and crime fans who've never stepped into a stirrup will relish Ehrman's riveting debut . . . Ehrman treads Dick Francis territory with a sure foot [and] has created a mem-orable cast. With his youthful zeal and perseverance, Steve Cline makes a captivating hero and sleuth, one readers will be eager to see again."
"At best, only a small fraction of first novels turn out to be first in a series (why assume that success for AT RISK?) The over-arching reason is that its author is thoughtful and clever, as well as skilled. Ehrman's writing is unob-trusively crisp . . . The plot is intricate, intriguing, and solid in the best tra-ditional style . . ." (see the complete review-->)
~ The Drood Review
"AT RISK by Kit Ehrman is suspense on steroids and one of the best debut novels to hit the crime literature racetrack since Dennis Lehane's A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR. Clear ample shelf space for a Steve Cline series because Ehrman, a real-life horse farmer, has hit for the literary trifecta."
~ Andrew McAleer of Austin Layman's Crimestalker Casebook