Dick Francis published his first novel in 1962. It was called Dead Cert and its background reflected a livelihood its author knew so well. Horse racing. Francis, who died aged 89 in 2010, had been champion jockey (over the jumps) in 1953-4, by which point he had been appointed jockey to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Although he would rather it had been otherwise, Francis was very much involved in one of the most celebrated incidents in British steeplechasing. His mount, Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse, was on the verge of winning the 1956 Grand National when it inexplicably seemed to jump a non-existent fence (as if Aintree didn’t have enough of them as it is) and thus fell. The chance, and the National, had gone.
In his later career, Francis would write 40 novels, thrillers involving illicit and generally shady goings-on surrounding horses and those whose employment was based around them. He was hugely helped in his literary endeavours by his wife, Mary, and when she died in 2000, his son, Felix, became his collaborator. They published four books under joint authorship and Felix has subsequently published 10 of his own, the most recent being the one you see here.
This particular adventure involves Miles Pussett, a former jockey who thinks he’s put all that behind him as he spends a few days in St Mortitz pitting his wits and his body against the perils of the Cresta Run. But if he wants to avoid the horsey fraternity, his timing is off. Very off. He picks the first week in February when the ‘White Turf’ festival is run (see the photo on the home page). Utterly improbably, this is a real-life celebration of horse racing on a frozen lake. They and their riders are watched by spectators enjoying champagne and lobster in luxurious grandstands, but the idea of tons of horseflesh running on frozen water seems incongruous beyond words. And this year it pretty much was. The 2022 staging (the event was inaugurated in 1907), which began a week last Sunday, was impacted when the organisers noticed water was pushing up under the ice. Some races were abandoned, others truncated. Global warming, hey? And my guess is that the water would have been way too cold for swimming. (Or at least it would be for me.)
In the end Miles Pussett gets the better of his villainous adversaries, as one suspected he might. But his situation – that of the first-person narrator who is out of his depth in the face of genuine jeopardy – is a classic staple of the Francis genre. I recently re-read Comeback (published in 1991), and the outline on the back of the book sums matters up perfectly. “Peter Darwin was hoping for some quiet leave from the Foreign Office. Instead he found himself in the village of his childhood – at the services of a veterinary surgeon whose operating theatre was rapidly acquiring an unwanted reputation as an abattoir.” Several horses from one small part of Gloucestershire have died in suspicious circumstances, and the omens for Darwin don’t look good. As the blurbs it: “And now he knew enough to get himself killed…”
Think I’ll read another old one very soon.