This blog is more of an exploration of the mystery novels I missed reading. I’ve been a romance reader for more than half my life. I can’t remember when I started reading mystery. I would like to say that Michael Connelly got me started with The Black Echo and the rest, as they say is history. So far this year, I’ve discovered Derek Raymond, Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard and John le Carre. Now I can add to my list Dick Francis (1920 to 2010). As most readers know, Dick Francis was a steeplechase jockey turned crime writer. Most of his books were set in the world of horse racing. This will be a first for me and in a world I wouldn’t mind returning to either.
I thought I would start with Sid Halley in Odd’s Against because he’s a popular character with readers. It was published in 1965. The author uses first person narrative and picked as his protagonist an ex-jockey turned amateur sleuth with a disability. The novel’s length is about 224 pages. There was a TV series made in 1979 to 1980 based on the book, titled, The Racing Game. Sid Halley has went on to reappear three more times in Whip Hand (1979), Come to Grief (1995) and Under Orders (2006).
After fourteen years as a champion steeplechase jockey, Sid Halley was forced to retire because of an injury. Just like that, a way of life gone. For two years he’s been in a depressive mood and does nothing to earn a salary. Being struck by a bullet was his defining moment. In the opening pages, he reflects on life as he lies in a hospital bed. His wife has left him. His career is over. He is a man mourning a way of life no longer open to him.
His father-in-law, the Rear Admiral Charles Roland, invites Sid to recover at his home. The two men used to have a rocky relationship because he didn’t approve of him marrying his daughter, Jenny. Because he’s illegitimate, uneducated, small in stature and a “jockey.” Sid wins the Admiral over by beating him in a game of chess.
The plot is more about how Sid Halley finds new meaning in life after racing by doing detective work for Hunt Radnor Associates. He joins the detective agency and takes on the case of some hostile takeover of a favorite racecourse – Seabury. It seems that most of the racecourses have been destroyed for brick and mortar homes and he wants to save Seabury from such a fate. There’s some danger involved as one of the people who he is targeting is rather cruel and will stop at nothing to protect what’s his.
The most memorable scene in the book was the dinner party held at the Admiral’s house. It’s kind of smoke and mirrors game that he fails to tell Sid about. The rich guests who arrive to stay the weekend were vicious and cruel to Sid. He held his own amid their derision. His relationship with secretary Zanna Martin, a young woman with a disfigured face, was one of the best parts in the book. The two make a pact to overcome their fear of public judgement and not let their disability overshadow them.
As for the crime itself, certain aspects of it was interesting in the investigation part of it but most of the scenes toward the end of the book grew tedious. I was tempted to skim as scenes dragged on. The resolution held no surprises. There isn’t very much suspense. This was a straight forward crime novel. The characters were the best part of the book. The villains were nasty and cruel. I like the behind the scenes look at the financial aspects of running a racecourse and all that entails. I liked getting a peek at what a champion jockey life was like and understanding how much he had to give up. In the end for me, it is Sid Halley who made this book a pleasure to read and I look forward to reading more of his adventures. Odds Against rates about a B for me because it took almost two weeks to read it. The momentum was fast at the start but by the middle and end things sort of slowed down/lost interest till I reached the end.