Dick Francis was one of the most successful post-war National Hunt jockeys. The winner of over 350 races, he was champion jockey in 1953/1954 and rode for HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, most famously on Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National. On his retirement from the saddle, he published his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, before going on to write forty-three bestselling novels, a volume of short stories (Field of 13), and the biography of Lester Piggott. During his lifetime Dick Francis received many awards, amongst them the prestigious Crime Writers' Association's Cartier Diamond Dagger for his outstanding contribution to the genre, and three 'best novel' Edgar Allan Poe awards from The Mystery Writers of America. In 1996 he was named by them as Grand Master for a lifetime's achievement. In 1998 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List of 2000. Dick Francis died in February 2010, at the age of eighty-nine, but he remains one of the greatest thriller writers of all time.
He may be turning 77 this year, but Francis (To the Hilt) narrates his new thriller through the eyes of a 17-year-old without missing a step‘and, as usual, offers a mini-course in a slightly arcane profession along the way. The profession is British politics. The youth is Ben Juliard, who plans to spend his "gap year" (between school and university) as an amateur steeplechase jockey. His benevolent but disapproving millionaire father, George, arranges for Ben to be fired, however, and to help him win a by-election to replace a deceased member of Parliament. Having conquered London's financial City, George has designs on Disraeli's greasy pole and wants Ben to be "a sort of substitute wife. To come with me in public. To be terribly nice to people." Despite determined enemies (the ambitious widow of the dead legislator, her éminence grise adviser and a sleazy reporter out for dirt on anyone), and three possible attacks on the Juliards (shooting, car sabotage, arson), George prevails in the vote. Five years later, he's a popular cabinet minister (for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food), while Ben has found happiness working in racing insurance and as a successful steeplechaser. A cabinet crisis makes George a leading contender for prime minister, and Ben worries that the unknown previous assailants will try again. They do but, despite some dicey moments, Ben prevails, although not without suffering a major loss. As usual in a Francis novel, the sweetest parts are about family; here, especially the growing love and understanding between father and son. The villains aren't particularly scary, but this smooth, nimbly paced charmer isn't really about bad people anyway, but about how the rest of us cope and live, sometimes in their shadow. BOMC main selection. (Sept.)
More murderous horseplay from the prolific Francis.