Some Racing Post readers will feel irritated by the rather ponderous opening stages of this book. They should try not to. For Felix Francis has to carry a lot more than them over those first few information fences. 47 books into the Dick Francis franchise and this third entirely on his own, Felix has the largest consistent international readership that racing has ever known. And in “Refusal” he once again takes them a cracking gallop once he getshis horse jumping.
With all that extra weight it’s a bit of a heave to believe that the chairman of the BHA has to explain its integrity mission to Sid Halley, the most seasoned racing investigator of them all. It’s something of a slow down to need to jump in and out of the difference between Tote and bookmakers. And it’s all but a run-out to accept that the great Sid, one armed ex jockey hero of so many Dick Francis novels, would only on a second inspection of the file realise that there had not been a single close finish to any of the nine suspect races listed by the BHA chairman.
Then the chairman is found dead in his car, a sinister Irishman starts making calls, Sid’s daughter, then his dog gets kidnapped and we are winging off into familiar country with the fences coming up thick and fast. True we nearly slip out of the saddle when asked to sit on while Sid, albeit 6 years into retirement, appears not to know that a top ten rider for the last ten years is stable jockey to his girl friend’s father. And there is a dodgy moment later on when another suspect pilot claims to have lost the Champion Hurdle, no less, by deliberately blundering at the second last. But stick with it. Francis has a winning formula. After nearly 50 best sellers it’s worth kicking on and enjoying the ride.
The method, as ever, is to mix an increasingly dramatic, if not quite incredible, plot with detailed factual explanations of unlikely and sometimes unpleasant story lines which this time includes the technicalities of a possible transplant for Halley’s famously severed forearm and the horrifying legal ramifications when he gets anonymously cited for child abuse. As so often the writer is securest on the racing locations with race days at Towcester and Uttoxeter being as believably provincial to Racing Post readers as they must be far flung and exotic to all those Francis fans scattered around the world from Melbourne to Tokyo.
The scam is a familiar one, a suitably nasty Mr Big who cut his teeth and other people’s faces in Belfast during the Troubles has paid and blackmailed a whole string of jockeys to do his dirty work. Halley hooks up again with judo-throwing Chico to take the battle to Mr Big’s Birmingham lair and to door stepping the jockeys with threats of exposure. Eventually he blows a monster scam when virtually every jockey in the race has been fixed, Mr Big tries to reap terrible vengeance but meets a magnificently nasty end.
As the story grips you, and against myself I found myself turning the pages long into the night, two old Dick Francis questions recur. How come this most upright of racing men, as a jockey his nickname was “The Parson”, continually depicted the sport he loved as quite such a nest of dolts and villains? And how truly unlikely are the plots he puts together?
Dick and indeed Felix’s answer has always been that good represented by the old fashioned hero figure always eventually triumphs over the evil which is never as totally invented as racing apologists might like think. Right at the beginning of their writing partnership Mary Francis told me how she and Dick used to study reports of old legal cases to give themselves story lines that had actually held together in actuality. And anyone who scoffs at the plot line in Refusal only has to look back at what happened in France in 1970.
Back then I was on the fringe of Europe’s worst ever scandal, the wide scale penetration of French jump jockeys by the Marseille mafia which culminated in the fixed Prix Bride Abattue at Auteuil. On the fringe, because I had known and been entertained by the mafia’s main contact when riding at Cagnes Sur Mer, but neither I nor my rides can have been interesting enough for any attempt at my seduction. My French friends were not so lucky. They had been systematically bribed and blackmailed until the system was blown when the main Tierce race of the afternoon developed with every fancied horse held back in a group someway behind the leaders all of which were outsiders. More than half of France’s top ten jockeys went to jail that time. There were murders and suicides. It was actually rather worse than anything in Refusal.
Felix has been described as the guardian of the Dick Francis brand. He was a schoolmaster in an earlier life. Francis fans will think he has learnt his lessons well.