Johnny's Reviews > Under Orders

Under Orders by Dick Francis
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's review
Aug 17, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: mystery

There was a time when I would buy the latest Dick Francis hardback every time I visited England in September. But that was in another life and I only recently caught up with this, Francis’ purported last solo effort. It was delightful to meet Sid Halley once again. He was the protagonist of the very first Dick Francis mystery that I read. I had read the dust cover on a copy I found in my local library and became hooked.

There was a certain and comfortable rhythm to most of the Francis’ mysteries, a rhythm I caught in that first novel. The mystery confronts the protagonist rather than the protagonist seeking out the mystery. Even Halley (who creates his own detective agency) is no Sam Spade, seeking mysterious women in distress or shadows of some dark fortune. Instead, Francis’ heroes (they are all male to my recollection) cross paths with greed (often tied to the racing world the author knows so well, but sometimes with corporate fraud, blackmail, and other crimes), uncover the rocks of deceit—exposing sordid plots much to the chagrin of various individual villains and foul conspiracies, find themselves threatened, experience either psychological or physical torture (or both), and discover both the perpetrators and the means to set matters right.

Under Orders only violates this tenor in terms of which character is threatened in the book and why. It is a fascinating twist. Unlike many Francis’ mysteries where the protagonist does thorough research into a given area (be it banking, photography, brewing, or enology) in order to solve the mystery, the only research in this one is mostly a “red herring.” I say, mostly because there is a reason for the research and it is an interesting insight into the world of Internet gambling of which I was unaware. Of course, he offers interesting ideas on possible cheating, as well.

Of course, one great delight in Francis’ decision to close out his solo efforts with his most famous hero (an English television network did a series of Sid Halley mysteries) is that there is a familiar cast of characters, old friends to revisit. Halley seems to establish a new rapport with his ex-wife and, of course, his former father-in-law, the good admiral (Charles) plays an important role in helping both to maintain Sid’s sanity and providing an important plot twist. The hated columnist from The Pump appears and, as usual, provides numerous problems for our hero. In this case, however, Halley figures out a productive use for the infamous Chris Beecher.

In most of Francis’ mysteries, I have been relatively certain of the perpetrator from fairly early on. In Under Orders, I must confess that I continually strained for the obvious when the mystery was considerably more convoluted than I had expected. Still, it was a “fair” mystery. The clues were all there; it’s just that the “red herrings” were so much more convincing. It’s been a long time since I was taken in so many times during the course of a novel. As a result, I highly recommend this “final” effort by Francis’ as a “solo” performer. Of course, I’ll read those he co-writes, as well.

In Under Orders, Halley hears rumors that a former acquaintance, a trainer, has been allowing his horses to under-perform (e.g. “fixing” races) and observes a heated argument between said trainer and his best jockey. When the jockey is murdered and the trainer ends up dead soon after, Sid has to figure out who the real murderer is (or murderers are). There are some very nice moments in this one and plenty of bad guys to go around.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Wolfgang (new)

Wolfgang I've always wondered about Dick Francis's books, but the sheer volume is intimidating.

Greed makes a great villain; I'll check it out.

Johnny I think the first Sid Halley novel was called Nerve, followed by Winning Hand. In addition to these, my favorites are Proof (a wine crime), Reflex (a photographic mystery), and Decider (building trade+).

If I remember your taste correctly, Proof is probably the one you'd want to start with. Certainly don't start with Under Orders, it's the end of an era.

Crystal I too used to read every Francis book and had signed copies from a bookstore in London. I tried to put them on retainer to just send me the latest one when available, but that didn't work out. Then, at some point, I too just stopped reading them. I just finished Dead Heat and loved it again. He creates the nicest characters and the most interesting plots. I can hardly wait to read Under Orders and meet up with Sid Halley again. I wonder if they ever made any more TV shows of this character. Saw those ages ago on PBS.

Johnny Crystal wrote: "I too used to read every Francis book and had signed copies from a bookstore in London. I tried to put them on retainer to just send me the latest one when available, but that didn't work out. Then..."

Crystal, I once went a conference in Banff for the British Film and Television industry (I was speaking at a satellite session on interactive media) where they explained why there were so many fine British shows with only a few episodes. In the U.S., a production company has to be able to guarantee a large amount of episodes (I think it used to be 23, but now is 21?) per year because the holy grail of US television is syndication and the syndicators want at least 40 (and preferably, I think, 60) episodes in the can before they make a deal. In England, a series can be signed with as few as three episodes because a standard season is more like six episodes and the goal isn't syndication.

That's why we have odd numbers something like nine (?) Faulty Towers in the archives and no more. It's hard to syndicate 9 episodes, but because of PBS in the States, sometimes miracles happen. Anyway, with a standard six episode "series" that makes it all the more convenient to serialize novels. That's why we have so many great PBS presentations of novel serializations and wonder why it doesn't happen over here. We couldn't and shouldn't stretch out a serialization over 20+ episodes. And, on US television, no one but PBS is interested in doing anthology shows where the subject may be a Dorothy Sayers' protagonist for three weeks, John Mortimer's Rumpole for another three, and the UXB (unexploded bomb squad) for another.

Oddly, weren't there four (?) episodes of the television series broadcast? If so, I can't explain that one. Although, I note that the mysteries he solved in the series were not the ones from the novel plots. These seem to be from one of the Francis story collections.

Thanks for writing!

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