- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

Forget what the calendar says. Neither Dick Francis nor his horses have lost a step. “Under Orders” is an unexpected event, but a welcome one for the millions of Mr. Francis’ fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Many (including me) had feared that “Shattered,” published in 2000 when the author turned 80, would be his final novel.

Whether or not “Under Orders” turns out to be Mr. Francis’ final work, it’s certainly more than just a farewell tour. If anything, it’s a couple of ticks better than his last couple of outings. It’s engaging and compelling right from a good opening paragraph on page one:

“Sadly, death at the races is not uncommon. However, three in a single afternoon was sufficiently unusual to raise more than an eyebrow. That only one was a horse was more than enough to bring the local constabulary hotfoot to the track.”

Hard not to keep on after that.

“Under Orders” is a readable mystery/thriller that will sit solidly on the Francis shelf with the 39 others novels that have won Mr. Francis all those loyal fans, and just about every literary prize awarded in the mystery genre. Though with his ability to treat themes, incorporate backgrounds and people his books with galleries of finely-drawn characters, Mr. Francis has always been more than just a genre writer.

All the Francis trademarks are present in “Under Orders.” We have a complex plot with an insistent and fast-moving narrative in lean, intelligent prose. (Different county and different sport, but a Dick Francis chapter has the snap of a good fastball.)

Mr. Francis’ protagonist — in this instance it’s the third appearance of P.I. and former jockey, Sid Halley, last heard from in 1995’s “Come to Grief” — is challenged by competent, well-connected and determined bad guys. Halley is intelligent, honest, tough-minded, resourceful and determined. It takes all of these qualities to stay up with his worthy adversaries in this story.

Things are going swimmingly for Sid Halley the P.I. as “Under Orders” begins. He has several cases to work on — a suspicion of race fixing, a commission from an obscure government agency to look into the possible consequences of legalizing Internet gambling, and the murder of a jockey at the track at Cheltenham Gold Cup day that the police don’t seem all that interested in.

The personal as well as the professional are looking up for our Sid. He’s now living in with a beautiful Dutch medical research scientist named Marina van der Meer. The villains in this story will not only push Sid to the limit, but will threaten great harm to Marina and to Sid’s good friend and former father-in-law, retired Royal Navy Admiral Charles Rowland, forcing Sid to make some agonizingly difficult decisions and to act on them.

Before this one is resolved Mr. Francis takes Halley and the reader thoroughly through the world of English racing, from the points of view of riders, owners, trainers, even of the dreary punter and his hopeless dreams. Players range from a member of the House of Lords to track sharpies to punters with every right to be clinically depressed.

We learn some current stuff on how Internet gambling operators could cut corners to their own benefit, and some old stuff on how trainers can help throw races. All this is portrayed before the background of greed and lust and antagonisms that make some people want to do these kinds of things — even if life has to be taken along the way — and make other people want to try to stop them.

Most who follow mystery fiction are aware that Dick Francis is one of those writers who knows the world he portrays in fiction intimately. Mr. Francis, born in 1920 in Wales, grew up in the family of a horse trainer and can’t really remember when he didn’t ride (though he concedes in his autobiography that his first riding experience at age five was on a donkey).

He became a champion jockey himself not long after Flying Officer Francis left his Wellington bomber behind at the close of WWII. Mr. Francis rode and frequently won for a string of owners, including the Queen Mum, until injuries forced him to move on to the more sedate life of a racing journalist. His first racing novel, “Dead Cert,” appeared in 1962.

It has been a good long series of rides for Mr. Francis, and for his many readers as well. If you’re a betting person, don’t bet that “Under Orders” is the last lap for Dick Francis.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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