"Carrot For A Chestnut," by Dick Francis, in Field of Thirteen, Putnam 1998.
(minor spoiler alert)
Well, it finally happened. I read a lot of stories this week but didn't come across any I liked enough to write about here, so I went to my list of fifty favorite crime short stories and picked one.
Here is something that bugs me: people who hit a grand slam their first time at bat. Just doesn't seem fair somehow. Supposedly Sheebeg Sheemore was the first tune O'Carolan ever wrote. And then there are the first novels that turned out to be the best things the authors ever did. (That can be thought of as a curse, can't it?)
I hadn't realized until I prepared to write this piece that "Carrot For A Chestnut" was Dick Francis' short story. Sure, he had been writing for novels for years, but he hadn't tried the short form until 1970 when Sports Illustrated invited him to try his hand - "length and subject matter to be my own choice."
Francis, rather famously, tended to follow a formula in his novels: they were all written in first person, the hero was often a jockey, and was brave, resourceful, and chockful of integrity. Perhaps it was no surprise that, when considering a short story, he decided to go in a different direction.
Yes, Chick is a jockey. But his story is told in third person and he is a "thin, disgruntled nineteen-year-old who always felt the world owed him more than he got." Now Chick has a chance to get a little more, by giving a carrot to a horse in the stable where he worked. The carrot is dosed with some chemical that will undoubtedly damage the horse's chance at winning a race. Is Chick willing to betray the people he works with, the people he feels don't treat him well enough?
This is a tale of suspense with a slamming climax. But the reason the story makes my top fifty is the twist ending that makes everything worse...