“Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races.”
Thus begins “Nerve,” and thus begins Dick Francis’s career as one of the leading crime writers of the 20th century. Although “Nerve” was his second novel, it was the one in which he got the formula he would go on to use for the next 40+ years down, and it is still a great read, polished and yet shockingly fresh.
Rob Finn is a sport in the technical sense of the word: the only athlete in a family of professional musicians, he is trying to break into the world of English steeplechasing after spending the early part of his 20s ranching and roughriding in far-flung parts of the former empire. Talented and ambitious, he makes a name for himself as the jockey to call on for the really nasty rides, the ones that everyone else is afraid to take. Until one day he starts losing races, and everything thinks he’s lost his nerve.
The plot is, as many of Francis’s thrillers are, somewhat ridiculous when viewed from a distance, involving as it does an elaborate scheme to discredit successful jockeys, but grounded as it is by the contextual details and the inner struggles of the characters, somehow it works. Rob’s rise, fall, and redemption are genuinely gripping, mainly because they are based on a true grasp of the blood, sweat, and tears behind any kind of genuine accomplishment. Rob has talent, but unlike many fictional characters, talent isn’t enough for him to achieve success, something he learns from his distant mother, a professional concert pianist:
“My mother might not have been a comforting refuge in my childhood nor take much loving interest in me now I was a man, but she had by her example shown me many qualities to admire and value. Professionalism, for instance; a tough-minded singleness of purpose; a refusal to be content with a low standard when a higher one could be achieved merely by working. I had become self-reliant young and thoroughly as a result of her rejection of motherhood, and because I saw the grind behind the gloss of her public performances I grew up not expecting life’s plums to be tossed into my lap without any effort from me. What mother could teach her son more?”
Rob needs all his mother’s lessons in not quitting when he is shattered first by the accusations of losing his nerve, and then by the physical attack the villain sets up for him. He is the first–although far from the last–of Francis’s heroes to have to push himself through some of his worst fears, and find strength where he thought he had none. Even readers who find the glitz, glamor, and multicolored silks of horseracing to be trivial will find the struggles that Rob has to undergo in order not to be broken to not be trivial at all. Recommended for all, especially if you’re at a low point in your life–there’s nothing like a Francis character to buck you up.
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