I knew about Dick Francis and his horse racing mysteries from a young age because my mom often read them. When I finally started reading his books I found that I absolutely loved some of them and others bored me to tears. However, if I listed my top ten favorite authors, Dick Francis would be on that list because his books, The Edge, 10 lb Penalty, and Whip Hand, are ones I read time and time again. Two of his characters, Sid Halley and Kit Fielding, are some of the best sleuths in the genre, mostly because they never stop seeking the truth, no matter the danger.
Who was Dick Francis?
Dick Francis had many careers, but before he wrote award-winning mysteries he raced horses professionally in England. He won over 350 races and became a champion jockey in the 1953-1954 season. From 1953 to 1957 he was the jockey to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. This may be why his horse racing mysteries are so engaging. You feel as if you are riding on the back of a winning horse because Dick Francis had done that many times. You wince when the main character gets injured because Dick Francis himself was injured as a jockey and wrote about it with devastating accuracy.
He published his first horse racing mystery, Dead Cert, in 1962 and went on to write a book a year. He won three Edgars, presented by the Mystery Writers of America, for Forfeit, Whip Hand, and Come to Grief. Whip Hand and Come to Grief are both Sid Halley novels. Sid is possibly his most famous character, and only one of two characters that he ever re-used.
Why do I love this book?
Under Orders is the fourth Sid Halley book and the first book Dick Francis wrote after his wife’s death in 2000. His wife, Mary, had been his collaborator and researcher and when she died he said he couldn’t write without her. However, his books were huge hits and he was convinced to write more. I always liked the fact that he titled this book Under Orders because he felt he was under orders to produce more books.
However, Under Orders is a fantastic book. Sid Halley is a private investigator who had once been a champion jockey. He was at the top of his career when a fall caused his hand to be permanently injured. Through his previous books, Odds Against, Whip Hand, and Come to Grief we watch Sid go from a broken man to a man who cannot be broken.
In Under Orders it appears that Sid finally has his life under control. He has a new girlfriend, a successful career as a private investigator, and a reputation on the race track as a man not to be crossed. When a friend, and fellow jockey, dies Sid naturally investigates. Along the way he has to choose between exposing the truth and losing those that he loves. This is a dilemma that he has had to face in previous books but this one has a twist. His new love is as strong as he is and with her help he is able to learn the truth about the crime and himself. I love all the Sid Halley books but this is the one I have read most often and will be reading again.
No book is perfect. This is what bugs me…
I hate saying negative things about an author or a book, but I have a really strong pet peeve that I need to bring up. It will come up again in other books I will discuss this month. This is only my opinion so feel free to tell me why I am wrong.
My pet peeve is this: I hate it when an author dies and someone else continues to write their books under the dead author’s name. I find it misleading and insulting to the reader. Do we really just read books because of the author’s name on the cover? Do publishers think we can’t tell when someone else has started writing the series? Well, I can tell and I don’t put up with it.
What I am talking about? Dick Francis died in 2010. Before he died his son, Felix, started helping him with his research, much the same way Mary, his wife, had. I think that is great. But while Under Orders was written by Dick Francis and reads like a Dick Francis book, subsequent books were co-written with Felix and feel different.
Since Dick Francis died, Felix has written three books alone. His name is on the cover, but so is Dick Francis’s. I tried to read a couple of these books but they are nothing like reading a Dick Francis novel. Why can’t Felix write Felix Francis novels? Why does he need to write books that are almost, but not quite, like his father’s? Okay, I know why. They sell. Well, I’m not buying.
If I want to read a Dick Francis book I will go to the library and check out a Dick Francis book. Or I will grab Under Orders off my bookshelf and enjoy the adventure of Sid Halley one more time. It’s not that Felix is a bad author. It is just that I have read so many Dick Francis novels that I have certain expectations. Felix, since he writes like himself, does not meet my expectations of a Dick Francis novel. Okay, rant over, for now.
Why should you read this book?
Under Orders is a great mystery written by a master of the genre who is an expert in his sub-genre, horse racing. Sid Halley is one of the best private investigators found in any book and while you can read Under Orders as a stand-alone and enjoy it, I would recommend reading all the Sid Halley novels. You will not be disappointed.
A Quote Worth Quoting
“I went out to the elevator to meet Charles, but it wasn’t Charles in the elevator. It was the smiling man from the front page of The Pump. Only he wasn’t smiling now.
He held a black revolver very steadily in his right hand and he was pointing it right between my eyes. Damn, I thought. That was bloody careless.” Dick Francis Under Orders