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"I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me."
As Derek Franklin, an injured steeplechase jockey, nears the end of his career, he is thrust into trouble and mayhem by the accidental death of his older brother, Greville. With danger besetting him from unknown directions, Derek discovers that honesty can be a deadly virtue and courage the provocation of escalating evil. His only hope of survival is to identify the enemy, but Greville, whose life had as many facets as the gemstones he imported, has left behind more philosophising than useful clues. "The bad scorn the good," Greville wrote, "and the crooked despise the straight."
On British racecourses, the homestretch is called the finishing straight, and it is here that a race is finally won or lost. Derek Franklin must call on all his stamina and endurance just to complete the final furlong.
Dick Francis is one of only a few male mystery writers I really love. I don’t know why there aren’t more, but I can give you several reasons why Francis is terrific. First, his mystery/thrillers are carefully plotted and always baffling. Second, the pacing is usually spot-on, with calmer scenes interspersed with scenes of tension in just the right proportions. Third, his protagonists are all decent men trying to do their best; they have an inner strength that comes out when they’re tested, and they don’t back down in the face of evil. They’re practical, cool under fire, rational and reasonable (though enormously stubborn.) They’re not unemotional, but they don’t put their feelings out there for everyone to see, either; we experience their feelings because we’re inside the protagonists’ heads due to Francis’s use of first person narration. And finally, Francis’s protagonists, and apparently Francis himself, think of women as human beings, and treat them with respect–something that can’t be said about some other male mystery writers. (Francis seems to have had the same respect for his wife, who was in many ways his collaborator on most of his books, doing much of the hands-on research.)
The author also knows how to grab you from the start. Straight‘s opening lines pull you in even while they tell you exactly what to expect:
I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.
From there, the narrator plunges immediately into the story: his brother’s accident and death, the discovery that he is Greville’s executor and responsible for his gemstone importing and wholesale business, the dawning realization that something is seriously wrong, and his determination to solve not only the puzzles his brother left behind but the mystery linked to them.
Another thing I appreciate about Francis is that his secondary characters are three-dimensional. Even if they don’t get much page time, they seem as real as the protagonist, if less well known and understood. Which is as it should be, since all of Francis’s novels are written in first person. In Straight, several characters come vividly to life: June, one of Greville’s employees; Clarissa, the woman he loved; Prospero Jenks, a brilliant jewelry designer and artist. Even the late-middle-aged Ostermyers, owners of a horse they want Derek to ride, are believable and real. Francis excels at creating not just a character but a whole personality in a few perceptive sentences. He’s equally good with settings, although he keeps description to a minimum wherever it is unnecessary, and deftly conjures the necessary details almost without you noticing, enhancing rather than slowing the flow of the narrative.
I’ve read Straight at least four or five times over the last 28 years, and it remains just as good each time, even though I already know exactly whodunnit and why. And despite being slightly dated in the details (many of Greville’s gadgets would today be contained in a smartphone, for instance), the mystery and its protagonist hold up remarkably well. My one sadness is that there won’t be any more of them; Dick Francis died in 2010, and while his son Felix has continued writing novels in a similar vein, it’s never quite the same when another author takes over.
Most of Dick Francis’s mysteries are stand-alones, but there is a four-volume series featuring former jockey-turned-investigator Sid Halley, and a two-book series starring jockey Kit Fielding. All of his books have some connection with the horse-racing world, or at least with horses, though not all his protagonists are jockeys. If you love mysteries and you haven’t read Dick Francis, I highly recommend you make his acquaintance.