Ashes to Ashes

Dark Horse by Tami Hoag
(Bantam, $26.95, PG) ISBN 0-553-80192-9
Elena Estes grew up in the Palm Beach, Florida, equestrian world. Although the beneficiary of a trust fund, she ostracized herself from her family by becoming a law enforcement officer. One night, working undercover and guided by arrogance or by tremendously faulty judgment, she rushed a bust. The result was a dead police officer and months of hospitalization and skin grafts for Elena.

Dark Horse opens two years later with Elena mired in self-pity and self-hatred. She is now a pariah in the law enforcement world. An old friend, who maintains stables for the sports of dressage and jumping, permits her to exercise some of his horses. Each day that Elena does not swallow her stored up cache of vicodin is a small victory.

The moment that Elena’s life starts to change is the moment 12 year old Molly Seabright tries to hire her to find her missing older sister. Erin had moved out of her wealthy family’s home to become a groom for one of the area’s largest trainers, Don Jade. Elena is not a licensed private investigator and she is afraid to break her self-imposed exile.

Molly convinces her that Erin is in danger and Elena reluctantly agrees to try and help. Elena starts with Erin’s family and her place of employment. The Seabright family is detestable. The father is a control freak, and the mother had figuratively abandoned Erin to please the father. The father’s natural son lurks in the background as a jerk of the first order.

The employer and renowned trainer Don Jade is no better. He has long been associated with murder of horses for insurance recovery, and in fact had just lost another valuable horse owned by playboy and equestrian dilettante Trey Hughes.

Frustrated by the fact that no one but Molly seems to care that Erin is missing, Elena tries to enlist the aid of the sheriff’s office. Detective Landry resents her from the very beginning, knowing full well her history and present lack of authority to investigate anything.

Erin’s father receives a tape demanding ransom for her and the action escalates quickly. Landry is forced to acknowledge that a crime has been committed and is thrown with Elena, like it or not. He doesn’t.

The mystery plot is inordinately complicated, greatly enriched by being set within Tami Hoag’s other world as a competitive equestrian. The action part of the plot moves swiftly from scene to scene in the seamless fashion that a skilled writer such as Hoag has mastered. However, the softer or romantic side of the story moves very slowly as again the author has captured a stark reality. Before Elena can thaw herself to love another, she must first find redemption for herself.

Hoag has created a convincing character in Elena. It seems natural that someone as bitter and scarred as she is would also be as abrasive and rude as she comes across.

Elena is the Dark Horse, and betting on one as the author says pays only once in ten times. But a sure bet is that Hoag’s Dark Horse is a winner.

--Thea Davis

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