I do most of my reading these days while I'm away from home, travelling on buses, trains, planes or — if I'm really lucky — cruise ships in the Caribbean. But there always comes a point when I'm working my way through a Dick Francis novel when I have to start reading it at home; I just can't wait until I go out again. The story has become irresistibly gripping and I need to finish it.
I've just finished Longshot, which was first published in 1990. By this time Francis had long since mastered the art of approaching the horse racing world from an oblique angle. The hero isn't a jockey or owner or anyone directly involved with racing. Rather, he's a struggling young writer called John Kendall who has been commissioned to write a biography of a wealthy trainer — a vanity project for the man.
Kendall has also written a number of books about survival in the wilderness. And in the course of Longshot it becomes a harrowing question whether these books, and the knowledge they've instilled in him, will save Kendall's life or result in his death...
Dick Francis has a marvellous gift for characterisation (I was particularly fond of Dee-Dee in this book) and I found myself, not for the first time with one of his novels, wishing for a moment that it wasn't a thriller and a murder mystery. Because his characters are so likable, and convincing, and their interactions and situations so appealing, that it seems a shame to inflict suffering and death on them. But this is a thriller and a murder mystery, and John Kendall and other characters are in for a hell of an ordeal.
The climax of the book is so powerful that I was squirming with sympathetic suffering. It reminded me of John Huston's remark about W.R. Burnett's books — how they caused him to break out in a sweat. Dick Francis really puts his hero, and his readers, through the wringer.
His great talent for making you feel the physical reality of things pervades the novel, particularly in describing nature... both in its menacing harshness — "The relief of being out of the wind was like a rebirth" — and its lyrical beauty — "the trees... creaked and resonantly vibrated in the oldest of symphonies." Sometimes he neatly combines the beauty with the menace: "The sun sank... among the sapling branches and the alders. In the wind, the shadows threw barred stripes and moved like prowling tigers."
And of course he writes marvellously about horses: "Fringe was younger, whippier and less predictable than Drifter: rock music in place of classical."
On top of that, there is his compassion even for the most evil of villains, which reluctantly makes us see their humanity and, despite ourselves, feel sympathy for them. I would put Longshot up there beside Come to Grief as one of his best. But, then, I've never read a bad Dick Francis...
(Footnote: also like Come to Grief, at least one of the editions of Longshot has a cover that reveals rather too much about the plot. Silly publishers.)
(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads.)