Three cheers for “category fiction,” is what I say. Sometimes people in the book business look down on novels that fall into the categories of romance, mystery, thriller — I guess “chick-lit” may be one of the categories now. But we all need diversions, and when you want a seamless (and cheap!) airlift out of your own reality, there’s nothing like an efficient novel.
So I spent a couple of hours last night in 1960s England with Sid Halley, one of Dick Francis’s best heroes, a depressed former steeplechase jockey with a mangled hand. Odds Against is one of those thrillers where the bad guy and his nefarious project are identified early on. It’s interesting, then, to see how Francis creates suspense out of the information he doesn’t give us. There’s an unidentified henchman — who could he be? There’s the question of how the villain will strike. There’s also an asymmetrical response: Sid has squirreled away copies of the villain’s records and in retaliation the villain firebombs Sid’s apartment and office. What was in the purloined information that warranted such extreme measures?
All of this is very competently handled and I’ve always been a pushover for Francis’s horsey settings. But what really set him apart as a thriller-writer was his economical, literal writing style, and the modest, wry toughness of his heroes. You know things will come out right in the end and you won’t feel like a dope for admiring Sid or Jonathan or Alan, Matt or Steven or Gerald. Or Dick Francis himself, for that matter.