02.20.10 7:03 PM ET
Do I Have to Read Dick Francis?
Author: Dick Francis
Readable Pages: All of them
Sample Quote: “We’ve enough dead horses for a glue factory, we’ve arson, and we’ve a body. It’s not bloody funny.”
Death, intrigue, horses—this was the world of Dick Francis. To celebrate the British jockey-turned-mystery-writer, who died last week at age 89, I set aside this week’s bestsellers and read Francis’ book Comeback, which was published in 1991. Why that one? Frankly, it’s the one the publisher sent over. But I also believe that with a brand name like Francis—who sired an astounding book per year for more than three decades—that any single book should tell you something about the lot of them. As the sleuth in Comeback puts it, danger wears many faces.
That sleuth is Peter Darwin—no relation to Charles, thanks kindly. The 32-year-old diplomat has just returned from a stint at the British embassy in Tokyo, his powers of perception honed at many a cocktail party. (Darwin is the kind of guy who will notice an awkward pause before a peck on the cheek is given.) The Gloucestershire countryside, where he finds himself through a variety of funny circumstances, is familiar. Darwin was born there and knows the players, though he doesn’t tell the other characters that. “There were more ways of revealing truths than marching straight up to them,” he says.
So off he goes to a horse track to find that crime has hit the trifecta? Heavens, no. Francis, who won more than 300 races as a jockey, presumably got tired of that one a dozen books ago. In a surprise, all the intrigue in Comeback is located in… an animal hospital. Ken McClure, a brilliant equine surgeon, has had several horses die on the operating table. It’s up to Darwin and McClure to find the killer via pharmacy receipts and feverish flips through equine medical texts. A strange angle for a mystery, but Comeback is absolutely sincere. “The knowledge,” Darwin says, studying the killer’s methods, “is veterinary.”
Francis is quite skillful in doling out that knowledge. We’re used to mystery novelists emptying their hard drives: Tony Hillerman would tell us something about the Navajo just as surely as Michael Connelly tells us about the LAPD. Francis, doing them one better, takes us right up to operating table while McClure performs a delicate surgery on a mare’s intestine. (“Ken, with sensitive fingers, found the mare’s jugular vein and pushed into it what looked like a long hypodermic needle…”) After reading Comeback, I can recite at least five devilish ways to kill a horse, including giving it a concoction of sugar and water down a tube through its esophagus.
If the horsey stuff is to be expected, the real surprise of Comeback is that it’s well-written—even daringly written, by the standards of the genre. Darwin is allowed to wander around in his own mind, and not just for the Socratic, is-he-guilty-or-innocent routine. There’s an early scene in which Darwin notices Ken’s fiancée calling her mom “Mother.” It is a fact, Darwin remembers his stepfather telling him, that a daughter who calls her mom “Mother” is doing so to control her. You properly call your mom “Mum.”
Later, we see Darwin dining with Annabel, the daughter of a prominent English bishop. “She effortlessly established a neutral zone around herself, across which she would be friendly to a point,” Darwin notes, adding that “the amusement in her big eyes was like a moat.” There is real and subtle perceptiveness here.
The characters in Comeback do not quite become three-dimensional. Let us call it an enhanced 2-D, which is good enough for a mystery. And Francis wasn’t above the tricks of the mystery novelist, including the one in which a character doesn’t impart key information for 50 or so pages, because it would inconvenience the plot for him to do so. (You wonder why Ken doesn’t give Peter everything about the dead horses from the start.)
But as the horse corpses began to pile up, I found myself struck by the darkness behind Francis’ suavity. As Darwin moves about the Gloucestershire countryside, he wanders into a forest of lost memories, of youthful days that suddenly seem sinister. “Perhaps one should never go back to the scenery of one’s childhood, perhaps never learn the fates of one’s friends,” he says. Kick a dead horse and you’re likely to find a lot of smoldering anger.
I couldn’t help but think of Francis’s own bit of tricky history, which was retold in every obituary column last week. In 1956, Francis was racing on behalf of the Queen Mother (er, Queen Mum) in the Grand National—what should have been his triumphant moment as a jockey. But his horse, Devon Loch, fell down short of the finish line. The horse was fine, but Francis was branded with that dreaded sports euphemism: the goat. Comeback leaves you feeling like there is a randomness to the universe that often manifests itself as pure horror.
Another note from the obits: At least one writer has suggested that Francis’ wife, Mary, who died in 2000, may have actually written these books—or had an extraordinary literary effect on them. That is one of those truths that Francis himself never marched straight up to. But as for the novelist or novelists known as Dick Francis, let us say this: He, or they, could really, really write.
Read it? Yes.
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William Boot covered the war in Ishmaelia and wrote the Lush Places column for The Daily Beast. He now reviews bestsellers.