For my contribution to the Crime Fiction Alphabet this week I’m highlighting one of my favourite books by a prolific English author who is still writing (albeit with help from his son) at the ripe old age of 90. I know in some circles Dick Francis is out of favour but I will always have a soft spot for the second crime writer I discovered (the first being Ms Christie of course).
Nerve is the second of Dick Francis’ 42 novels and was published in 1964. It is one of the few crime novels I’ve read that doesn’t involve any murders. There is a death, on the very first page in fact, but it is a suicide which, regardless of the pressure that the person may have been under, can’t reasonably be defined as murder. Robbie Finn, a relative newcomer to the English steeplechase scene, is present when a fellow jockey shoots himself in the head in the parade ring of a racing meeting. Finn goes on to observe that several other jockeys are experiencing problems with their careers before his own career takes a downward spiral just as it seems he will be a success. Finn searches for the common denominator affecting all the jockeys and arrives at a surprising result.
As well as there being no murder in Nerve there’s barely a crime, at least in the strictly legal sense. The story explores the damage that obsessively wanting what one cannot have might do to a person and what damage that person might then do to those who do have what is coveted. It’s quite intriguing.
Francis is in the minority of crime writers whose novels are mostly standalones (the exceptions being a series of four books featuring an investigator called Syd Halley and another two featuring trainer Kit Fielding). However all his novels do follow a fairly rigid formula and so share characteristics with series including the familiarity that people look for. His books always feature horses in some way although his protagonists are not always jockeys or trainers, his heroes are always intelligent men with an inner core of strength and there’s always the sense that some kind of justice (legal or otherwise) will be forthcoming before the end.
The books are not particularly deep (though ones like Nerve do at least make you ponder what you would do in similar circumstances) but if you like astonishingly well researched books with very good yarns of the modern-day fable sort you could do a lot worse that Mr Francis. Nerve is always a book I recommend when people ask for a mystery without any murders (and people do ask).