Book Review: Dead Cert by Dick Francis

Dick Francis Dead Cert - Header

My father reads a lot. I don’t mean he likes a book, I mean he likes multiple books, mainly at the same time. Whatever the literacy equivalent of lighting up a cigarette as soon as you’ve stubbed the last one out having forgotten the slowly burning embers of the one in the other room, that’s my father. So he’s a good source for recommendation when I want something to read. So, coming to the end of my recent “to read” list, I asked him to put together some books to keep me going. The demands weren’t too hard: interesting, modern, not overly long and not a “classic must read before you die”.

Now, I’ve never been horse racing. Unless you count the night of “virtual racing” in aid of Charity I attended a good few years ago. And, I don’t bet. Unless you count the night of backing “virtual losers” I had a good few years ago too. I’m just not a horse type person. I don’t mind them, I’m not against racing, or any other equine pursuit, but I keep my distance and let others take enjoyment from a source that doesn’t really interest me.

Virtual Horse Racing - Dead Cert

Also, I just take books at face value. I just turn to page one and set about the story. I don’t read excerpts or the blurb on the back. But it does mean that a lot of trust is placed onto my father’s “reading lists” because, if he says it is worth reading, I’ll read it and then shout at him later. So it was a little surprising to suddenly find myself thrust into the world of horses, jockey’s, tote betting and murder mysteries!

I’ve spoken before, mainly around Graham Greene and John Braine, about how I find older books written in a style that seems grammatically difficult to follow. The order of words or the construction of sentences seemingly jumbled compared to how I write and I end up reading and rereading passages, wondering if there is a missing word or what exactly it’s trying to say. But this time around, even for a novel written in the earlier 1960s that problem doesn’t exist. Dick Francis can put together a sentence but he does so in a language that isn’t evocative or overtly descriptional. You don’t really fall into the world he creates, everything is simply concise and clear, monochrome and clinical. Easy to picture everything clearly and while you see the characters, meet their personalities, you just never really fall for them. I never ended up turning the pages, engrossed in their world, even though they were my friends and I enjoyed their company.

Sean Connery (James Bond) - Dead Cert

I think the reason for this split between acquaintance and emotional bond, the lack of passion towards them, is down to the fact that the story just didn’t feel that realistic. Everything that happens just seems a little bit too far-fetched and implausible. Even set in a world I don’t know and understand the espionage elements felt wrong and forced. Impossible to play out as they do. I just can’t accept a jockey turned detective. And worse still, the more I read the more I simply started to picture the early James Bond novels and movies in my head. Sean Connery looming large and I truly think that Dick Francis wanted to bring to life his own British hero, his own Bond, and while Ian Fleming borrowed from his military intelligence background to create the famous British Spy, Francis expunged his own racing experience to create his dream.

I hate to say it, but it almost feels like Francis wants to be Bond and is living his dream through his writing and characters. And that’s the problem because Bond isn’t real and you accept that. Fleming took things just a little bit too far to remind you that it wouldn’t, couldn’t happen. Francis and the story he created is too serious. Too often this felt like an imitation of James Bond fantasy told with a straight face.

Dick Francis (with Horse) - Dead Cert

Even though I found the story dull and ludicrously implausible, now that I have finished it I miss the characters and part of me would like to continue their story and see how things unfold. The problem is, Francis lives in the world of racing, were my interest and murder mystery just don’t fit. Dead Cert has teased me because it’s given me a taste for something I like, Dick Francis’s writing and the name of a character: Alan York, but I just don’t want to spend time with them on a racecourse. I want them to be off playing detective, chasing the bad guy, and that’s the real problem, because I can do that, and his name is Bond. James Bond.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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