Published by Fawcett on February 12, 1987 (first published 1964)
Genres: British mystery, Mystery
Source: my personal collection
Also by this author: Straight, Break In
Dick Francis, the bestselling master of mystery and suspense, takes you into the thrilling world of horse racing.
Nerve tells the story of a struggling young jockey—a misfit in a family of accomplished musicians—who discovers that his troubling losing streak is caused not by a lack of skill or confidence, but by something far more sinister...
Dick Francis was well-known and well-loved for his taut, tightly-plotted mysteries, most of them set in or around the world of horse-racing. Nerve has always been one of my favorites.
The book begins with a bang — literally. “Art Matthews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races.” And with that, we’re off. Something is deeply amiss in the racing world. Jockeys are being ruined by rumor and innuendo; Art’s suicide and the later nervous breakdown of jockey Grant Oldham are merely the most obvious signs.
Narrator Rob Finn, a relatively unknown jockey, gets a lucky break when he is taken on as second string jockey by well-known trainer James Axminster. But when Rob takes a bad fall, then finds himself atop a string of slow, unresponsive horses — several of them favorites to win — he realizes that he, too, has fallen victim to whoever is trying to ruin jockeys. The difference is, Rob intends to fight back.
And fight back he does, eventually identifying the source of the rumors. But before he has a chance to prove it, the villain strikes harder, and Rob finds himself in a fight for his life.
One of the things that make Francis’s books work so well is the liveliness of his descriptions. You aren’t reading about the race course, you’re there — feeling the power of the horse beneath you, smelling the horses, hearing the crowds. I once read a review which said something to the effect of, ‘only Francis could make a 10-foot fall from a balcony feel as agonizing as being shot.’ As a jockey, Francis knew intimately the pain of a sprain, a broken bone, a fall. His descriptions of these are vivid and immediate. Don’t get me wrong — though there may be violence, accidental or deliberate, in a Dick Francis novel, it’s graphic but never gratuitous, and rarely gory.
His main characters are equally real, and while they all share several characteristics — tenacity, an ability to think logically, a certain tendency to take justice into their own hands, and above all courage in the face of their own fear — I don’t find (as some people complain) that they are the same person at all. Rob is an unusual jockey, born into a family of celebrated classical musicians but without musical talent. He’s totally committed to racing, and hopelessly in love with his cousin Joanna. He’s a real, three-dimensional person whose voice comes alive on the page. The secondary characters, while less developed for obvious reasons, are equally realistic and believable. It’s the writing, the tight plot, but above all the characters that keep me returning to Nerve.