Francis, Felix - 'Gamble'
Nick Foxton's career as a jockey was cut short by a near-fatal fall after winning the Grand National. Back at Aintree as a spectator, Nick witnesses the assassination of his friend and colleague, Herb Kovak. The press link the shooting to gangland crime, but Nick begins an investigation of his own, bringing him head to head with the people who wanted Herb dead.
'A Dick Francis Novel' says the cover, in text only slightly smaller than the author's name. Felix Francis is the son of Dick Francis, and heir to his stable of bestselling thrillers about the world of horse-racing. It seems 'Dick Francis' is now a brand, which feels a little strange if you grew up reading his earlier novels. At that time it was whispered that his wife, Mary, had a hand in the final draft of each manuscript. After Felix began co-writing with his father, the whispering became an open acknowledgement that the Dick Francis 'brand' was a family affair. But what exactly makes a novel 'a Dick Francis novel'? A plot that centres around horse-racing? A first-person narrative that takes an amateur investigator into dangerous realms? A little love interest along the way?
Gamble has all of the above, but it's an odd hybrid when measured up against the checklist of the brand (as the cover text forces us to measure it). Unlike his father, Felix has no direct connection to the world of horse-racing, being a physicist by training and then a teacher. Not that you need an interest in horse-racing to enjoy a Dick Francis novel. But perhaps you do need a passion for the sport in order to pull off a convincing novel whose hero desperately wants to get back in the saddle despite dire warnings that to do so might kill him.
This is the dilemma faced by Nick Foxton: a broken neck in that early accident has left him with a weakness which might be fatally exacerbated by the sort of hard physical exercise involved in horse-racing. Or hand-to-hand combat with a deadly assassin. Yes, Nick's in for a rough ride as he attempts to clear his name of suspicion and wade his way through the sea of suspects, trying to solve the crime and stay alive.
So far, so familiar. But there's a curious flatness to the narrative, which lacks the pace and intimacy of earlier Dick Francis novels. The hero is less vulnerable than the classic Francis hero, who was routinely trounced at the start and end of each book. The writing relies a little too heavily on exposition at moments when all we really want to know is how our hero is feeling and what he's going to do next. The classic Dick Francis novel, as this once-avid reader remembers it, was very simply plotted, entirely guessable, and huge fun to read.This is a nicely layered, slightly complex thriller with a grown-up love story at its heart. Nick's girlfriend, Claudia, is diagnosed with cancer and the pair of them struggle through the initial prognosis and treatment even as Nick is trying to tackle the more immediate threat from Herb's killers. It will be interesting to see how many books Felix Francis must write before his publishers decide to drop 'a Dick Francis novel' and let these books stand on their own merits.
Sarah Hilary, England
Sarah Hilary is the Bristol-based winner of the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. She is currently working on a crime novel. Her agent is Jane Gregory