So there was young Bill Crider back in early 1967, 25 years old and looking at the paperbacks on the spinner rack in an Austin, Texas, convenience store, when what to his wondering eyes should appear but a paperback with this blurb on the cover: "A thriller from start to finish line . . . Francis is a story teller in the Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett tradition."
The book was Dick Francis' Odds Against, and while the blurb was enough to convince me I needed the book, I opened it up to check out the first paragraph: "I was never particularly keen on my job before the day I got shot and nearly lost it, along with my life. But the .38 slug of lead which made a pepper shaker of my intestines left me with fire in my belly in more ways thatn one. Otherwise I should never have met Zanna Martin, and would still be held fast in the spider threads of departed joys, of no use to anyone, least of all to myself."
Maybe you could have resisted making the purchase, but I couldn't. And I'm certainly glad I didn't. After that I went back and found Francis's earlier novels, and I read each one after that as soon as I could get my hands on it. While some have been better than others, I've never been really disappointed in a single one.
Under Orders is the latest, appearing a few years after Francis's announced retirement from the writing game. I don't know why he came back, but I'm glad he did. This one is narrated by Sid Halley, by coincidence the narrator of Odds Against. If the book isn't absolutely top drawer Francis, it's close enough, and that's a lot better than the average for just about anybody else.
Halley investigates both Internet gambling and the murder of a jockey suspected of fixing races. There's the usual thorough research one expects in a Francis novel, along with the requisite attempts to stop his investigation. This time the attempts are aimed at someone other than Halley, and you might think old Sid has escaped the usual harrowing experiences undergone by a Francis narrator. Dream on.
I found the narrative voice as engaging as ever and the pacing just as good. And doesn't that opening paragraph I quoted make you want to do back and read Odds Against again? Francis is one of the greats.