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Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

Of Sin and Horses

The compelling world of Dick Francis's mysteries.

In the fall of 1997, the British mystery writer Dick Francis published his thirty-seventh mystery novel, 10-Lb. Penalty, which, like many of its predecessors, was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and a Reader's Digest condensed book and quickly made its way onto the New York Times bestseller list. As it happens, 10-Lb. Penalty differs in some significant respects from its predecessors, and I shall return to those differences. In many other respects, however, it manifests the essential features that have stamped all of Francis's work with a unique and haunting quality.

Unlike many leading mystery writers, Francis does not use a single sleuth or team of sleuths (Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse) to establish continuity from one novel to the next. Rather, he writes each in the first person voice of its main protagonist, and only three of the 37 share a common hero, the former jockey Sid Halley, whom Francis was persuaded to bring back by the demands of his readers. The diversity of protagonists, however, does not compromise the reader's sense that each new Francis mystery returns us to a familiar universe.

This sense of continuity owes much to the unity of Francis's narrative voice, and the forthright directness and immediacy of that voice swiftly engages the reader's confidence, which it sustains throughout, drawing us into the comfortable sense that the narrator is a man we should like to know and even, for regular Francis readers, someone we have met before. All of the Francis narrators are men, and most are not investigators by profession. Almost all have a direct connection to horses, and many are jockeys, former jockeys, or aspiring jockeys. A former steeple-chase jockey himself, Francis knows the world of British racing inside out and, in his mysteries, brings it vividly to life. It is impossible to read more than a few without acquiring a nodding acquaintance with British racecourses, jockeys' unabating struggles to keep their weight ...

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