Sunday 12 January 2014

Banker by Dick Francis

It's a testament to Dick Francis's skill that he can even make a merchant banker (that contemporary bogeyman) a likable figure. The title of his novel 'Banker' has a double meaning. It refers to both the hero of the story and to the racing slang for a horse who is believed to be a certain winner.

The milieu of private banks is only part of the setting for the book. Dick Francis also explores the fascinating world of alternative medicine and herbal remedies. The story is as compelling as I've come to expect from him, getting off to a flying start with a knife attack in the second chapter.

In classic, brilliant fashion the author has his hero save someone from the attack, jumping on the teenager with the knife. But then the police jump on him, thinking he's assaulting the kid, and let the real attacker get away. This really punches the reader's buttons, making us angry and frustrated. The hallmark of a writer who truly knows his stuff, and can get a powerful emotional reaction from his audience (Thomas Harris is also superb in this regard).

The plot also packs a real emotional punch, and is often stomach churning, dealing as it does with the birth of deformed colts to prize thoroughbreds. It's an immensely suspenseful book because I genuinely didn't want anything bad to befall the horse Sandcastle or his owners.

But this being a thriller, bad things do happen, to all sorts of people. And animals. Once again Dick Francis impresses with the quality of his prose. There are masterful descriptions of horse racing: "The ground trembled from the thud of the hooves... the sweat, the effort and the speed filled eyes and ears and mind with pounding wonder and then were gone, flying away, leaving the silence." (I particularly like "pounding wonder". Nice alliteration of the "nd"s.)

There also beautiful little bits of observation. A stable lad is sweeping up in front of the thoroughbreds' stalls, watched by the horses "with the same depth of interest as a bus queue would extend to a busker." It's just perfect.

If there's a flaw in the book, it's that the death of one of the characters doesn't seem to have sufficient impact on some of the other characters. This didn't ring emotionally true to me. But that doesn't prevent Banker being one of Dick Francis's best.

(Image credits: The Colin Thomas cover photo at the top (white-on-black instead of his usual black-on-white designs) is from Jan-Willem Hubbers excellent site.  The others are from Good Reads. I'm rather fond of the German Kindle edition. And the yellow US hardcover is stylish, too.)

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