The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack

Subtitle

Mystery

Dick Francis Novels



The Edge by Dick Francis

Dick Francis writes about the world of horse racing with crisp plots and tightly drawn characters that are a delight to experience. The Edge is mostly set on a train in Canada which is bringing horse owners from race to race as part of celebration of the Canadian horse racing industry. It’s a delightful setting and serves Francis well as his hero, Tor Kelsey, attempts to figure out A) how bad guy Julius Apollo Filmer plans to disrupt the event, and B) how he (Tor) is going to stop him from doing so. Along the way we meet a cast of colorful characters and Francis writes the most convincing romance of his career.


This one is running neck and neck for the title of best Dick Francis novel with other greats such as Hot Money and Straight.




Proof by Dick Francis

Dick Francis always spins an enjoyable yarn. This time he steps mostly outside of the horse racing business to explore the wine and liquor trade in an intriguing mystery surrounding counterfeit alcoholic beverages and missing tanker trucks. The mystery, as always, is first rate, but it is our self-doubting protagonist, Tony, that makes this story great. Tony is the son and grandson of war heroes who disappointed his family by not having the same fire in his veins. He's even disappointed in himself, although I'm not certain he recognizes that. He also fails to recognize his own quiet courage as he steps up again and again and accepts grave personal peril as he investigates the crime. The character growth is believable and the ending will bring a tear to your eye.


Hot Money by Dick Francis

This was the first Dick Francis novel I ever read and luckily for me it is one of his best. It's the sort of book you will come back to many times over the years and it inspired me to go out and read just about every other novel he's written. (I haven't gotten to his non-fiction yet, but I will.)


This novel is enjoyable on multiple levels. There is a great mystery here. Malcolm Pembroke is the mega wealthy patriarch of a dysfunctional family that includes the children from five marriages, three ex-wives and a bunch of grandchildren. Wife number five was murdered in the middle of divorce proceedings. The police suspect Malcolm, but now that someone is trying to kill him, they will have to reconsider.

The hero of the story is Malcolm's son, Ian, an amateur jockey and the product of his second marriage. Ian is about the only family member not-obsessed with getting his hands on his father's fortune. At the start of the story he is estranged from his father because of his opposition to Malcolm's fifth marriage. Strangely enough, Ian's willingness to stay away and "risk" his inheritance makes him the only person Malcolm feels he can trust when it appears someone is trying to send him to an early grave.


This brings us to the second thoroughly enjoyable aspect of the story--Malcolm's children are all a bit crazy and it is tremendous fun, and ultimately quite heart warming to follow Ian as he attempts to get to know them well enough to figure out who is trying to murder Malcolm. He gets to know their troubles and their strengths and makes it possible for the reader to really value them.


Finally, it wouldn't be a Dick Francis novel if we didn't learn more about the world of racing. I find this utterly fascinating. If you stick with Francis through his other novels, you will find yourself with a fairly complete grasp of the racing scene picked up painlessly by exploring his mysteries.


If you haven't tried Dick Francis before, Hot Money is the book to start with. If you've read the author and are wondering which book to read next, this one is it. And if you read it years ago, isn't it time you picked up and enjoyed it again? Five Stars only because they won't let me give it more.


Flying Finish by Dick Francis

Henry Grey is the son of an earl who frustrates his family by taking a job caring for horses being flown between countries. Yet this quiet, extremely competent young man quickly discovers that things are not all on the up-and-up in his new career and the discovery almost costs him his life.


Francis works hard to develop Grey’s character in this novel and it proves very important to the over all story. In addition to being quiet and efficient, Grey’s both obsessively private and extremely stubborn. The one explains why he has pilot skills that almost no one knows about, and the other explains why he won’t just lay down and die when saner individuals would have given up.


Unlike some of Francis’ novels, this one is very much a product of the time he wrote it (published in 1966). There’s a subplot involving smuggling birth control pills into catholic Italy and there’s tremendous tension between Grey and one of the other characters who greatly resents his prestigious bloodline. Overall, this isn’t one of Francis’ most memorable works, but it’s a fun read none-the-less.


Whip Hand by Dick Francis

One of the major themes in Dick Francis’ novels is that of courage. His heroes are quite often jockeys who risk falling off their horses on a daily basis. They break bones and suffer other mishaps, yet continue to race at breakneck speed to earn their livelihood. Whip Hand is also about courage, but Francis tackles it by focusing on the intense fear of his hero, Sid Halley.


Halley is a retired jockey—forced out of the racing business when he fell and had his hand trampled by another horse. His mangled limb had to be amputated and Haley now makes his living as a private investigator looking into problems around the racecourse. Whip Hand starts out with Halley being drawn into four separate investigations—two of which are clearly connected—and one of which gets him abducted and threatened with having his remaining hand blown off with a shotgun if he doesn’t back off.


To his great shame, Halley breaks—at least in the short term—but his sense of self will not allow him to leave the matter alone and he finds himself picking up the investigation again despite a nearly paralyzing fear of being totally crippled by the villain of the story. Francis doesn’t have to hit the reader over the head with this fear, it just continually resurfaces in Halley’s thoughts and yet, he keeps investigating.


In addition to the investigative storyline, Francis gives a powerful subplot in which Halley is asked by his ex-father-in-law to investigate some trouble Halley’s ex-wife has gotten into. The ex-wife divorced Halley because she could not handle the risks involved in his profession as a jockey and could not stand the choice he made to move into another dangerous field after he lost his hand. Her anger often veers into hate and her interactions with Halley—her tremendous resentment of him and need for him to fail—make for a moving and disturbing subplot. She helps us see quite clearly the “defects” in Halley’s character that have made him so successful as both a jockey and now an investigator.


This is one of Francis’ more memorable stories and characters. It’s easy to see why he decided to write multiple adventures about Sid Halley.

Bonecrack by Dick Francis

There are two stories at work in Dick Francis’ mystery, Bonecrack. On the surface this is a contest between two men—a wealthy criminal trying to force Neil Griffon into putting his amateur eighteen-year-old son onto champion horse, Archangel, for the Derby. It’s a totally unrealistic and impossible demand, but that only makes the insane lengths to which the villain is willing to go to make it happen all the more frightening.


The real story, however, is about two young men and their dysfunctional relationships with their fathers. Both fathers are absolutely determined to control their sons and neither can ultimately handle their inability to do so. There is a lot of pain in this book—but worst of it is the emotional damage these two fathers keep inflicting on their boys.


The heart of this novel is watching Griffon slowly cultivate the feelings of competence and independence in Alessandro that helps to break him free of his criminal father’s control. It’s extremely well done and highly believable. It also creates a very human core for the book—especially when you realize Dick Francis’ true vision of a father-son relationship is the mentoring Griffon gives Alessandro and the mutual respect this generates between them.


Bonecrack also has one of the most dramatic endings of any Dick Francis novels as Alessandro’s father goes to horrifically insane lengths to get his way. This is one of those books that sticks with you years after you first read it.


Dead Cert by Dick Francis

Dick Francis knows how to start a novel with a bang—in this case the murder of Alan York’s best friend in the middle of a steeplechase. It didn’t look like murder, but York sees more than he’s supposed to and sets himself on a path to find out who killed his friend—a decision that almost results in his own death.


The mystery is a good one and there are several tense actions scenes both on and off the track, but for me the standout element of the book was Alan York. I would have liked to have learned a lot more about him—his past growing up in Africa and the teacher who helped form so much of his character. The love interest in this one never worked for me, but they are rarely the strong point of Dick Francis novels. In this case, he did a little more poorly than usual with what I thought was a wholly unbelievable ending to that particular subplot. Fortunately, that’s not enough to derail this story of murder at the races.



Enquiry by Dick Francis

One of the things that sure to get me to the edge of my seat in a good mystery is the false accusation when the hero is framed for a crime. It’s just such a situation that forms the heart of Enquiry and like any good hero, jockey Kelley Hughes is not going to stand by and allow his reputation to be ruined. What I liked most about this mystery is the way in which Hughes goes about trying to solve the mystery. He starts with direct confrontations of the men who lied about him and forged up fake evidence. This, quite naturally, doesn’t help him any. So he has to get increasingly sophisticated in his efforts to figure out who is behind the injustice—and all the while the unknown villain is taking steps to permanently stop Hughes from proving his innocence. This is a good quick read that left me totally satisfied.



Knock Down by Dick Francis

This is an uncommonly aggressive novel for Dick Francis. His books always have a mystery which his hero reluctantly discovers he must solve in order to come through the problems confronting him intact. But in Knock Down, Jonah Dereham fights back in an atypical way for Dick Francis. Jonah is a bloodstock agent who has the disadvantage of being honest. He refuses to engage in a scheme to force owners to give major kickbacks to the bloodstock agents and the ringleaders of the scheme decide to try and terrorize him into cooperating with their plans. Much to their shock, he pushes back and it makes for a very exciting novel. This is a different kind of conflict than Francis usually gives us and that difference really ups the level of excitement.


Rat Race by Dick Francis

This is one of the more complicated Dick Francis mysteries. Matt Shore is a pilot for a small airline service that makes most of its money ferrying owners, trainers and jockeys to and from horse races. Matt’s a very capable pilot who’s had a run of bad luck which is just about to get much worse. His plane blows up right after he and his passengers have disembarked. No one is killed but when the investigation shows that a bomb caused the explosion, it certainly raises the question of whom someone wanted dead.


Things get more mysterious as Matt tries to figure out who could have planted the bomb and who was the intended target. Even when he thinks he’s figured out the identity of the assassin he can’t figure out the motive and in this case motive is absolutely key to proving guilt. This is a good mystery with some of Francis’ better personal relationships. A fine novel all around.




High Stakes by Dick Francis

The thing that makes Dick Francis novels stand out from the pack of run-of-the-mill mysteries is his keen insight into the horse racing industry and in this book he takes a look at a special kind of fraud that unscrupulous trainers can put over on their absentee owners. To the untrained eye, many horses look alike, so what do you do when a trainer swaps your prize-winning horse with one that looks similar but doesn’t have the racing magic? It’s an interesting problem, especially when the trainer is well liked, and it’s especially painful when Steven Scott, are hero, is vilified by the press and other race goers for trying to extricate himself from a man who has been cheating him. There’s never any doubt who the villain is in this novel, but there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding how our hero will get justice in the end. The solution to one of Francis’ most ingenius.


Trial Run by Dick Francis

This isn’t Dick Francis’ best novel. For roughly the first half of the book, it is a plodding mystery without purpose. The hero, Randall, is on a nebulous mission to Moscow to identify “Alyosha”, a mysterious person who poses an unidentified threat to the brother-in-law of a prince of England if he dares to come to Moscow to ride in the Olympics. The British government is only barely interested in the threat—they just want the young man to stay home—and Randall is pressured by the prince to go find out if there is actually a problem. There is no reason to realistically think he has any chance of learning anything and Francis depends too heavily on the camaraderie of the racing business to feed Randall weak clues in the oppressive Soviet environment.


The villain of the story is obvious from the first time he appears in a scene, but it isn’t obvious what he is doing or why he is doing it. Attempts to murder Randall begin to pile up and for the first time in any Dick Francis novel it makes sense for the hero not to go to the police for help. His whole point in going to Russia is to avert a scandal and going to the Soviet police force might not be the best idea even if it wouldn’t trigger that scandal.


The one thing that saved this story was the ending. I have long complained that Dick Francis likes to end his novels one chapter too soon. Once the action is over, he drops the tale, almost always leaving important resolution of subplots incomplete. This time he doesn’t do that. Randall returns to England and resolves things with the prince. I wish he had done that more frequently.