Dick Francis is the cozy lover’s Raymond Chandler. He plunks down a hard-boiled thriller right in the middle of a cozy mystery setup, and somehow it just…works.
It’s really amazing when you think about it. Francis’ books have all the trappings of a textbook cozy, right down the line: an amateur sleuth with an interesting hobby or unusual profession accidentally gets embroiled in a murder case, and uses their specialized knowledge to solve it.
There’s the pastoral English countryside. There are glimpses into stately homes and the lives of the rich and well-heeled. There’s an upstairs-downstairs interplay of snobbery and irony. And there’s the reluctant hero who starts off asking inconvenient questions, and ends up on a mission to discover the truth.
But these aren’t contemplative stories of moral quandries, psychological clues and painstaking reconstruction. There’s no sidekick or confidant to provide cups of tea and comic relief.
Francis’ sleuth (and no matter his name or profession, he’s always the same character) is a man with a reckless past and an uncertain future, willing to gamble his life just for the thrill of the chase. He may have a few friends or a romantic relationship, but he is fundamentally alone.
He will always get roughed up or outright tortured by the bad guys, often twice. He usually has a bone-shattering encounter with a horse, the ground, or both. He’s not squeamish at the sight of his own blood, and he’s not afraid to use violence in return.
There will be action. The plot moves fast, without many syllables spent on lush scenery or relationship development. The hero will set a cunning trap. The villain will be caught and defeated. The ending will be satisfying and unambiguous. And nearly always, the good guy gets the girl.
Formulaic, you say? Well, it’s a fair cop. But you know, Hob-Nobs are formulaic. “After all,” one could sneer, “it’s just a digestive dipped in chocolate.”
Yes, but they’re good. You know exactly what you’re getting, and you can’t get enough.
Dead Cert, published in 1962, is the first of Francis’ 43 mystery novels. The protagonist Alan York is a wealthy amateur jump jockey. He’s been sent to England from South Africa to look after his father’s business interests, and uses his spare time to pursue his real passion — steeplechasing.
When a close friend takes a fatal fall in an important race, York can’t dismiss it as an ordinary accident. He examines the fence after the race and discovers signs of foul play. Unfortunately, whoever set up the accident is quick and careful to remove the evidence. While the police are willing to hear York out, there’s nothing for them to go on.
York sets out on a singlehanded mission to find his friend’s killer. He fears that he may be on a wild goose chase, until a band of thugs lure him off the highway and try to “persuade” him to drop the case — the hard way. But when a man falls off speeding horses for fun, he’s not going to be deterred by a few bruises and cracked ribs. Instead, he takes away new insight and clues to help direct his investigation.
Meanwhile, York meets Kate, a lovely young lady who’s just been given a racehorse as a birthday present. He’s instantly smitten, and his approach is a refreshing contrast to the angsty dithering of many sympathetic heroes in popular fiction. He’s much more in the line of Shakespeare’s Henry V:
I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, “I love you.” Then if you urge me farther than to say, “Do you, in faith?” I wear out my suit. Give me your answer, i’ faith, do; and so clap hands and a bargain. How say you, lady?
But this Kate is not to be so plainly won. Indeed, York’s investigation itself becomes an obstacle to their relationship, as his desperate pursuit of his friend’s killer winds up costing her dearly in blood and tears.
If I had to point out a flaw in my enjoyment of the story, it would be the resolution of the love interest. I thought Francis pitched that aspect of the story well, up to a point. Kate was introduced as an idealized, almost otherworldly beauty. That fits with the perspective of a narrator who’s fallen in love at first sight. As they spend time together, she becomes a bit more nuanced, and York begins to realize how little he really knows her. Ultimately, he has to choose between pursuing her love and pursuing his mission.
By the end, York wins out over the villain and solves the mystery. But he feels that he’s lost, because he lost Kate.
So far, so good. Until there’s one more reversal. For no apparent reason, with no warning, Kate suddenly gets over it. They reconcile and have their happily ever after ending, but it really does seem tacked-on and perfunctory. Not to put too fine a point on it, perfunctory love interests are par for the course. Well-rounded female characters and complex, insightful relationships just aren’t a feature of this brand of Hob-Nobs.
Nevertheless, Dead Cert has everything you could want in a page-turning mystery thriller. The plot is twisty. The hero cleverly sets a trap that turns the villain’s own system against him. York guts his way through pain, hardship and uncertainty to bring his friend’s killer to justice and thwart the evil plans that endangered a whole town.
I give Dead Cert four stars. Fine entertainment, and a lot less calories than a pack of Hob Nobs. As of this writing, Dead Cert doesn’t seem to be available in Kindle or streaming audio, but you can get it in paperback, large print, or audio CD.
By request, I include a “Squick Factor” rating on reviews, to give tenderhearted readers a heads-up on graphic or disturbing material.
This one’s a bit tricky to place. Francis isn’t shy about describing his narrator’s experiences, but he doesn’t get truly graphic. There is a character with a very creepy hobby of collecting archeological relics of torture. It’s more suggested than described, but an extremely sensitive reader might react to the idea as much as any details. By my feeling, Dead Cert’s Squick Factor should be 1, but readers who don’t normally read hard-boiled stories might find it a 2.
Squick Factor Range:
0 – Nil.
1 – Meh.
2 – Kinda.
3 – Oh yah, you betcha.
4 – GAAAHHH! Nuke it from space!
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