Hands Down by Felix Francis

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

This is a racehorse-centred crime novel by Felix Francis, younger son of Dick Francis, the late great exponent of horse-racing mysteries.

The central character is Sid Halley, retired champion jockey and investigator of racecourse intrigues. He was a character in four of Dick’s novels, starting with Odds Against (1965) and the only one to featured more than twice in what were mostly stand-alone stories. In this outing, he’s in his late 40s and is trying to reconcile having a newly transplanted left hand.

The plot revolves around Sid’s former colleague Gary’s apparent suicide and the earlier burning down of his stables. Sid thinks it’s murder but the Police aren’t sure. Gary had complained to Sid about a jockey’s agent who was throwing his weight around, so Sid has a lead to follow. This is the meat and potatoes of the story and its resolution drives the plot onwards, in spite of the detours down dog food alley and suchlike.

The setting is mainly provincial and rural England, with its racecourses, ruins and country towns.

The pacing of this story is not up to Dick’s best work; it seems to take ages to shift into gear and the tension ratchet up. Along the way we get a QI -like episode about historical minutia  of monarchs, extensive details about the layouts of several racecourses and a blow-by-blow recount of which highways, roads and streets are taken to get to the next racecourse/ hotel/ house/ dog-kennel. Surely unnecessary padding.

Then there’s the minor matter of Sid’s dog Rosie and who will look after it and for how long, while he investigates a friend’s apparent suicide. Do we care? Not this reader anyway. However, to be fair, there is one incident of the dog in the night-time (to borrow from Sherlock) that helps balance all the dog biscuit information.

All the while,  we are witness to Sid’s ongoing marital difficulties with his wife Marina. She and daughter Saskia have left for Holland where her father is dying. The will she won’t she come back subplot goes on like a marathon. Thankfully, we do get a resolution at the end.

Professional horse-racing is closely linked to gambling, which can raise some questionable moral issues, not least problem gamblers and their self-destructive ways. Then there’s the vexed issue of Animal Rights. So when Sid rides into battle to stop a gambling con on the betting public and thereby save British racing’s integrity, he’s not exactly channelling Nelson Mandala or Greta Thunberg is he?

One feature I liked about the plot was the dilemma that Sid faced when he found out about the hold that the villain had on his victims. To flush out the baddie but spare the relatively ignorant but guilty victim was a tricky balancing act. The difficulty lay in the fact that the racing authorities would want to punish the victims, if they revealed their involvement in race fixing. Hence the tight hold that the blackmailer had over them.

Another character to re-emerge from the past is Chico Barnes, judo expert and trusted off-sider to hero Sid. Luckily for Sid, Chico’s term as a Physical Education teacher has just finished, so he is available to be escort and guard for the two weeks break. And he’s needed, big time.

Perhaps of less need, as far as the plot is concerned anyway, is the retired Admiral. He is a sounding board for Sid’s ideas and a companion to share a whiskey with, but he doesn’t add much to the story. The Police seem to fill a supporting role as well, being on hand to arrest wrong-doers (and others) as the final whistle is about to be blown.

Technology plays a significant part in the plot, especially the mobile phone and its ability to record both film and voice. There is also a tracking app that plays its part in the unfolding drama. You wonder how the younger Sid ever managed to catch his prey without this asset in his pocket.

One interesting fact that emerged during Dick’s writing career was his wife Mary’s role as a researcher and guide. She was a former English teacher and was thought, by some, to have had significant input into the crafting of each novel.

Whatever the truth there, son Felix (who is a former Physics teacher), sure could have used an English teacher to whip this meandering novel into better shape. With some judicious editing, a good story lies at the heart of this effort.

In horse-racing terms, it’s carrying too much weight to be a favourite with this bookie.

Felix Francis was born in 1953 and after graduating from the University of London taught Advanced Level Physics for 17 years. He collaborated with his late father Dick on three novels, before writing 11 novels himself. He was an international marksman and currently lives in Oxfordshire, England.

Hands Down


by Felix Francis

Simon & Schuster UK

ISBN: 978 147119 666 9

$32.99; 416 pp


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