Horse lovers and mystery fans alike will want to grab hold of Playing with Fire, the latest instalment in author Vicky Earle’s Meg Sheppard series. This fourth book in the series, like the first three, involves horse racing and country living. But Meg faces what might be her biggest challenge yet: to unravel a tangled mess of murder, fraud, drugs, art, and arson.

For Earle, setting her novels in the thoroughbred racing world was a no-brainer. She and her husband, Martin, have been involved in the sport for 35 years, and own and breed Thoroughbreds at their small operation in Uxbridge, Ontario.

Earle was also equally involved in her horse’s post-racing career. “I enjoyed retraining our racehorses when they retired from the racetrack, so that we could find new homes for them. I took lessons from experienced professionals to help me in this process,” she says.

Earle has dedicated Playing with Fire to the LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society, which found a loving home for one of their racehorses, Lions Bay, who came 6th in the Queen’s Plate.

The couple currently have four horses at home, including two retired racehorses/broodmares, Lions Raw, who is 25 years old and her daughter, I’m a Cheetah, who is 19. A lab/collie cross and three cats round out their menagerie. interviewed Vicky about her novels and the horse world that inspires them.

Horse Canada: What can you tell our readers about your lead character, Meg Sheppard?
Vicky Earle: Meg Sheppard was born in England and emigrated to Canada to escape her abusive stepfather as soon as she had the opportunity. While she struggled with human relationships, she found solace in helping animals and was the Executive Director of Vannersville Humane Society for several years. She met Frank Sheppard, a provincial government minister. Their marriage was one of mutual convenience. Frank wanted a wife for political reasons, and Meg craved the country lifestyle he offered with horses and dogs. After Frank’s unexpected and sudden death, the animals provide her with comfort and unconditional love. But she needs more. She yearns to be part of a family.

HC: What inspired the latest mystery novel, Playing with Fire, which is part four in the Meg Sheppard series.
VE: My memories of the tragic fire in the backstretch of Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto resurfaced and gave me some ideas. I re-read news reports and other articles. Another theme of the novel is the use of performance-enhancing drugs. I have been following cases in the US where some trainers, veterinarians and others involved in horse racing have recently been charged after an extensive investigation by the FBI.

HC: The world of Thoroughbred racing is a backdrop in your books; what draws you to this part of the horse industry?
VE: Horse racing provides a limitless source of ideas for stories. An obvious and unfortunate reason I write about horse racing is that it has a dark side. A few trainers (by far the minority) use performance-enhancing drugs and other illegal, unethical, and abusive ways to cheat. Races can be rigged. Jockeys can be paid to lose a race. A few owners place their horses with a specific trainer because they know he or she cheats. They want to win. It’s not always just about the money. It can be about prestige, pride and the thrill of winning.

Cheating not only affects the honest trainers, owners, jockeys, veterinarians, and so on, by creating an uneven playing field, it also makes it unfair for the gamblers. And much worse, affected horses are at risk of injury.

It’s expensive to train a horse and there’s no guarantee of any return. In Ontario, nearly all the Thoroughbred racehorses live at the racetrack while they’re in training. Owners and trainers have the potential to lose a lot of money if things don’t go well.

HC: What is the plot of Playing with Fire? No spoilers!
VE: A charred body turns up after a tragic barn fire at the racetrack that also claims the lives of two racehorses. Meg – turned amateur sleuth – follows twist and turns, exposing a complex web of deception and soured relationships. Her investigation puts her family, including her animals, in danger. Will she unravel the tangled mess of murder, fraud, drugs, art, and arson?

HC: When did you begin writing novels? And what are your plans for a 5th book?
VE: I began writing What Happened to Frank? over twenty years ago! Progress on my first book was slow because of demands on my time from my career and our horse farm. I retired in 2012 and have been able to dedicate a little more time to writing. I have some muddled thoughts about my 5th book and have only a few words committed to paper. I may change this, but my first page suggests William is missing. And I’m interested in a case where a jockey was penalized for using an illegal method to win a race. But I don’t want to give anything away!

One thing is certain: animals will feature in the 5th book, just as they have in the first four. Animals are a part of my life and always have been. I can’t imagine life without them. When I started writing my first novel, I wanted to include animals and not just racehorses. I find animals fascinating. I’ve been lucky enough to live in rural Ontario for almost all my adult life, and animals have always been around.

HC: Meg has horses and dogs; how does her love of animals play into the plots of the books?
VE: Kelly, Meg’s beloved border collie, has a role to play in the novels and sometimes a significant one. Kelly’s character is partly based on a wonderful, devoted and intelligent border collie who was a member of our family for several years. Meg’s obvious love of her animals makes her vulnerable as her investigations proceed. Those who are under suspicion sometimes go after Meg’s horses or dog in an attempt to make her back off. Also, Meg becomes more and more determined to help protect the welfare of racehorses as the plots unfold.


Grab your copy of Playing With Fire here or at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge.