Sunday 15 September 2013

Whip Hand by Dick Francis

I recently finished doing jury duty. But not before I ran out of books to read.

Knowing there would be long, boring periods of down-time and waiting around, I had taken a big fat classic World War 2 novel with me. But through bad planning I managed to finish this book before the jury service was finished with me.

So I went to inspect the shelf of books which were provided by the crown court for the enjoyment of us jurors (there was also the world's worst collection of freebie give-away magazines). The book shelf was actually better than I expected. I had anticipated lots of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and sure enough there they were. But there was also Margaret Atwood...

And my old friend Dick Francis.

Whip Hand is the second adventure of Sid Halley, a former jockey turned private detective who lost his hand after it was crushed by a horse. He now has an electronic prosthetic with which he is rather adept. Halley appeared in four novels, starting with Odds Against, and he is the author's only real series character.

Whip Hand was sheer delight to read. Having gone away from Dick Francis for a while, I'd forgotten how beautifully written his books are, and how addictively readable.

All of Francis's virtues were on display: the vivid character names (Rammileese), the enthralling plot (which springs a neat surprise at the end — I absolutely did not see it coming) and the minimal yet richly evocative descriptions — he describes how the hero and his sidekick, on a burglary mission, pause in a stairwell and "dumped the clinking bag of tools" and then, once they've broken into the office to seek out the information they're after: "in the strong evening sunlight we sat and read the reports."

Another distinctive feature of Dick Francis's thrillers is how remarkably non-vindictive they are. At the end after Sid has been put through hell by the bad guys and finally triumphed over them, his father-in-law, a retired admiral, asks him if he doesn't want to gloat. Sid says, "And in your war at sea, what did you do when you saw an enemy drowning? Gloat? Push him under?"

"Take him prisoner," says the Admiral. 

(However, having recently read The Cruel Sea, I might point out to Sid and the Admiral that there was a certain amount of leaving the enemy to drown, not to mention machine-gunning them in the water. Particularly if they were U-boat crews.)

Oh yes, one last thing. I resisted any urge to steal the crown court's copy of Whip Hand and returned it to their book shelf for another lucky juror to enjoy.

(Image credits: Normally in these Dick Francis posts I use the covers with the Colin Thomas photographs as my main image at the top, because they're so terrific. But this time I just had to use the cover design by the great David Larkin. Not only was it the copy I actually read, it's also a quiet little masterpiece of design. Look at how Larkin has put the text of the cover inside the hand to strengthen the image. This is from Manyhill Books via ABE. The Colin Thomas cover, also excellent, is the second one down. It's from the ever reliable Jan-Willem Hubbers — a fine Dick Francis resource. The striking painted shotgun-and-hand cover, referencing a crucial plot point, is from Noble Net. The other covers are from Good Reads.)

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