Sunday, 6 July 2014

Come to Grief by Dick Francis

By now I've read quite a few thrillers by Dick Francis, but this outstanding novel is by far the best of them. It had the remarkable quality that I both couldn't put it down and was afraid to pick it up.

It concerns hideous mutilation of young horses by a psychopath, which accounts for my perpetual trepidation about reading the next page. But of course I was utterly swept up in Dick Francis's account of his hero trying to stop this nutcase.

One of the brilliant things about this book is that it is not a whodunnit. Reversing the procedure of most of his other novels, Francis tells us who the guilty party is on virtually the first page. 

This is a stroke of genius, and it in no way diminishes the suspense of the tale, because our hero has to battle to make himself believed. The villain is a well known and beloved public figure, so it's an uphill battle and the good guy is vilified and attacked (both figuratively and literally) for exposing the truth.

The hero in question is Sid Halley, the one-handed former jockey turned detective who also figured to splendid effect in Whip Hand. In Come to Grief he sadly no longer has the services of his likable sidekick Chico Barnes, a resourceful fellow with useful judo skills. Indeed, Chico was so savagely beaten in Whip Hand that he's now retired from private detection.
 
Instead Dick Francis cleverly introduces a new helper for Sid, and a very unlikely one at that. It's in the dialogue of this teenager that we find the only false note in the book: "He's Establishment, man."

A very minor quibble though, concerning a book which is a masterpiece. It is also extraordinarily dark  — and startlingly complex. 

Even at the end, after all the suffering which has been inflicted on him, Sid can't bring himself to hate the villain. Indeed he still feels some affection for this monster, a fellow jockey and former friend of his.

Quite unforgettable.

(Image credits: The blue glove image, which is the edition I read, features a cover photo by Leslie Howling and is taken from the website of Jan-Willem Hubbers, photographer and fellow Francis devotee. The others are all from Good Reads including the main picture which is the only one which has any real relevance to the plot of the book.)

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