Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dead Cert, by Dick Francis


Bill Davidson has everything--a doting wife, three adoring children, the best hunter 'chaser in the country, a reputation as the best amateur steeplechase jockey going, and more than enough money to finance it all. Then one day, his prize horse Admiral takes a nasty fall during a race, and Bill Davidson winds up dead. Everyone shrugs it off as an unfortunate accident--everyone, that is, except Alan York, best friend to the dearly departed. Alan's convinced there was something not quite right about Bill's fall, and he's determined to get to the bottom of it. But Alan finds out the hard way that asking questions can have unpleasant consequences, and could end up costing him everything . . .

Once again, Dick Francis brings his considerable racing experience to bear in this excellent mystery. Or perhaps I shouldn't say 'once again', since this is actually the first of Francis's horse-racing mysteries. It is easily one of his best. This is due at least in part to the fact that the bad guy ends up having a fairly normal, believable motive. Many of his other mysteries rely rather heavily on psycho killers who are motivated by little more than madness or pure evil--a lazy solution, to my way of thinking. A more complex villain--one with whom the reader can, at least in some sense, identify, is a much stronger choice. I'm pleased to report that we get just such a villain here, though there are certainly hints of Francis's coming predilection for crazy villains. But fortunately, it doesn't come to full fruition here.

As always, the story intersects with the racing world in some way--in this case both the victim and the hero are amateur jockeys, and much of the action centers around their racing activities. However, we do get a bit of a glimpse into the intricacies of protection rackets, bookmaking, and taxicab companies along the way.

Every time I read a Dick Francis mystery, I find myself wondering why more of his works haven't been adapted for film or television. Turns out, this one has (though I've no idea how it turned out). Still, Francis's books seem ready made for a more visual medium--they're action packed, with just the right blend of romance and thrills, and the leading men always seem like plum Hollywood roles.

In this case, our hero is Alan York, the likable son of a successful trader. He's ridiculously wealthy, but his unconventional upbringing in Africa prevented him from becoming spoiled or pampered--and in fact equipped him with courage, sleuthing skills, and a certain amount of physical prowess which he will most definitely need before the story's done. It's a wonder that such a matrimonial catch hasn't been snapped up. Enter Kate--vibrant, innocent, and newly gifted with a horse of her own. Alan falls for her but hard; she, on the other hand, is in no hurry to rush into anything. And unfortunately, Alan's got his hands full trying to solve the mystery of his best friend's death, which is something of a challenge when everyone else thinks it was anything other than a tragic accident. Still, he's not deterred. One way or another, he'll figure out whodunit.

If you love a good mystery, Francis is your man. And if you're new to Francis, this isn't a bad place to start.

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