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Published: Sunday, 12/3/2006

Dick Francis is off to the races again

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

UNDER ORDERS. By Dick Francis. Putnam. 308 pages. $25.95.

The time was, book enthusiasts could tell it was autumn because Dick Francis would have a new racetrack-themed mystery coming out.

The former jockey who became a racing correspondent for a London newspaper after retiring from riding in 1957 published his first thriller in 1968, then wrote a book each year until his wife, Mary, died in 2000.

Mary was her husband's research assistant, often delving into subjects as diverse as art, wine, and even weather forecasting for background in his novels. After she died Francis stopped writing, and the whispers arose that she, all along, had been the writer and he had provided his name and "star power," if you will, to get the novels published.

With the release of Under Orders, Francis has put to rest those rumors.

Everything about the book feels right: the style, the galloping plot that's thin in some places but rich in detail, and even the people. And yes, he writes to formula, but it's a formula that has worked well for nearly four decades.

For Under Orders, Francis wisely brings back one of his most popular characters, Sid Halley.

One could argue that Halley, who made his first of now-four appearances in 1965's Odds Against, is Francis' alter ego. They both are former jockeys, having retired after falls. Francis' fall was serious enough to make him change careers. Halley's was an easy fall by racing standards, but the aftermath - when a horse stepped on his left hand and a razor-sharp horseshoe sliced through bone, muscle, and tendons - forced him to acquire an electronic arm and a new line of work. Francis chose writing about murders; Halley investigates them.

Under Orders opens at the Cheltenham race course, where, as Francis writes: "Sadly, death at the races is not uncommon. However, three in a single afternoon was sufficiently unusual to raise more than an eyebrow."

One of the three, a horse, is probably the most mourned. Another, a probable heart attack, is sad, but just one of those things. The third is murder. The victim is Huw Walker, a popular jockey found with three bullets in his heart.

Halley has more than a passing interest in Huw's death. He had been hired to investigate the rumors that Huw and his boss, trainer Bill Burton, were fixing races.

But even before Halley starts digging, Huw is dead, and a few days later, Bill Burton commits suicide.

Police consider the pair of deaths a straightforward solution: Bill shot Huw to keep him quiet, then killed himself because he couldn't bear to go to prison.

Halley, who has an unshakable belief in Bill's innocence, keeps digging into the two deaths, even as he pursues another investigation, this one for a little-known government committee trying to predict the consequences of proposed legislation to license large casinos and allow internet gambling.

Between the two investigations, it isn't long before Halley strikes a mother lode of trouble.

Like most of Francis' books, Under Orders is filled with details about random subjects, including DNA testing, designer clothing, and gossip columnists. His new research assistant is his son, Felix, a former teacher, and the ease with which Francis works the disparate topics into his plot bodes well for the professional relationship.

To be fair, Under Orders is not perfect. The denouement arrives rather abruptly and a little too easily, and the writing is sometimes clunky, as if Francis has not yet recaptured his spare but effective style after half a decade of not practicing it.

Balancing the flaws is the return of many people we have come to know: Sid; his ex-wife, Jenny; and his former father-in-law and now close friend, Charles. Francis also introduces some new characters who seem destined to appear in future books.

Francis' hiatus may have been a long one and for very sad reasons. But by allowing Halley some much-deserved happiness with a new love, the author seems to be paying tribute to his late wife and their relationship.

He also seems to have taken to heart an adage that all jockeys know: If you fall off a horse, you get right back on. Francis fell off his writing, and although it took a while to get back to it, he has now done so.

The result is more than entertaining, and it holds the hope for future novels.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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