The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack




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.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

There is something about this mystery that is just fun. Forget for a moment that this novel transformed the mystery genre by mixing the hardboiled detective with romance and a little comedy. And forget that it is one of the all-time greats of detective fiction. Nick and Nora are two of the most enjoyable protagonists in any detective novel. He’s a retired private investigator who has seen a little bit of everything and was very happy to leave it behind. She’s his young, very wealthy, wife who wants excitement in her life and finds Nick’s past as a detective to be glamorous and enthralling. When a mystery starts to develop near them, Nick tries his best to stay out of its way while Nora tries to drag the two of them directly into the center of the mess.

The supporting cast centers on an eccentric inventor, his murdered secretary, his ex-wife, their two children and her new husband. All of these people are brilliantly brought to life in totally believable detail. But most of all they are fun to encounter as they swirl around Nick and Nora, each trying to use them to get something they want from the eccentric inventor—the Thin Man of the title. Throw in the police, mobsters, a lawyer and a cast of hard drinking socialites and you have all the ingredients to give Nora all the excitement she could want while keeping Nick from escaping his old profession.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I find it strange that the first word I think of to describe this hardboiled detective novel is “beautiful”. The heroes of these sorts of novels are rough and ready and I expect the prose to be the same. Yet that isn’t the case in The Big Sleep. From the very first page, Chandler’s writing is elegant, smooth and even breath-taking. His novel is so superbly crafted that when the movie starring Bogart and Bacall was made in 1946 they lifted much of the movie dialogue directly from the pages of Chandler’s book. It’s that good.

His characters are also superb from Marlowe himself with his tough exterior and uncompromising sense of honor, to General Sternwood who becomes sympathetic only because he’s dying, to his two daughters who are both a mess but in such fascinatingly distinctive ways, to Joe Brodie who wants to be tough but proves he isn’t whenever he’s pushed. I could go on, but I’ll settle for adding one more—Harry Jones, a man who is physically small and slight of build but proves to have more backbone and loyalty than anyone else in the novel but Marlowe himself.

I also loved the movie. I saw it several times with my roommates in college, but there were several small problems with it that do not exist in the novel. The biggest of those problems is that at the end of the movie we never really understood how Eddie Mars got the goods on the Sternwood family or how Marlowe figured out who murdered Regan. I think that might have been due to the movie standards of the time because the pivotal scene in the novel only halfway happens in the movie. Marlowe comes home in the book to find Carmen Sternwood naked in his bed (she kept her clothes on in the movie) and when he throws her out she loses all of her cuteness and much of her appearance of humanity and begins hissing at him. (Again, in the movie she just gets thrown out.) Chandler builds this scene with extraordinary care. It shows us there is a lot more going on in Carmen’s head than the doped up sweet and giggly mess that she shows the world most of the time. Without this scene the ending of the book makes no sense whatsoever—which may in part explain why the movie created its own ending rather than stick with Chandler’s better (but less romantic) one.

If you’re ever wondering why Raymond Chandler is held in such high esteem as an author of detective novels, The Big Sleep is a great place to start.