A worthwhile bet on a winning book.

In Memoriam: Dick Francis Book Display - Centr...

In Memoriam: Dick Francis Book Display - Central Library 2010 (Photo credit: mySAPL)

first published 2002

At the horse races, picking a winner is a far from straightforward task. Tall, haughty thoroughbreds can just as easily be beaten by a horse with humbler bearing.  As it stands, Dick Francis‘s Forfeit, a slim, unpretentious-looking volume, doesn’t seem like much. But the writing within this sleek, efficient thriller can effortlessly trounce that of the thick literary wannabes it shares shelf space with any day. The contrast becomes even more pronounced when you find out that the author is a former horseracing jockey (the Queen Mother’s favorite even) turned sportswriter, and that this book is one of his earlier efforts. Dick Francis fans have long regarded Forfeit as one of his best novels, a high-water mark in his long, best-selling career. Francis’s stories are largely set in and around the world of horses and racing.  Like myself, you may only have a passing familiarity with “The Sport of Kings”. Or you could be the type of person who ignores the sports pages completely and have never set one foot into a hippodrome. You might even look down on racing. And yet Francis’s stories transcend their milieu. Don’t worry if you’re not a horse lover, the way he writes you won’t know you aren’t.

Despite his many novels, Francis rarely repeats characters. His fans and critics say that he writes about people whom you want to be friends with. It’s remarkable how he keeps coming up with a fresh cast to fit each of the different settings and plots of his books. In Forfeit, the protagonist is suave sports writer James Tyrone, a gentleman of admirable depth and decency. The book starts when a drunken colleague seemingly jumps to his death mere minutes after leaving Tyrone with an enigmatic warning that hints at blackmail. Our hero then finds himself mixed up in an international racket that takes advantage of the British races’ unique system of ante-post betting.  As he leads his paper’s effort to stop the criminals, the married Tyrone must also wrestle with his own conscience as he pursues an affair with a beautiful biracial lady.

The novel’s plot gallops along at an exhilarating pace. And except for one incredulous incident involving a drunken Tyrone and a mugful of coffee, the situations remain believable, just a step within the right side of hyper-real. The cast of characters, from news editor to horse breeder to hired nurse, all emerge as finely drawn creations. This is no mean feat considering the book’s modest length. The climax elicits appropriate levels of adrenalin. And for a thriller, the ending is exquisite in its poignancy. Once you’ve gotten to know the characters well (and you will want to), finishing this book will be an act of fond regret as you bid farewell to the endearing Mr. Tyrone and the lively universe in which he exists.

Dick Francis

Dick Francis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For most readers, part of the fun of reading Dick Francis is the fact that you’re being introduced to refreshingly unfamiliar environments and professions. Apart from the well–crafted mysteries, it’s entertaining to peek inside this unique world and learn a little something about horses, racing, and the culture surrounding them. There’s always a sentence or two that really makes you appreciate Francis’ writing skills as much as his knowledge of animals, sports, and whatever other subject he happens to be exploring. Forfeit stands out as an excellent example of his work. This book is a winner, you bet on it.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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