“Odds Against” by Dick Francis

Odds Against

Odds Against

Dick Francis

In “Odds Against,” Francis’s fourth fictional outing, he takes a decidedly darker turn. Although not lacking in evil villains, both “Dead Cert” and “For Kicks” had a strong aspect of glamorous wish fulfillment, and so, in its own way, did “Nerve.” Alan, Rob, and Daniel all had tough times, sure, but overall they were living lives other people think they would want to lead. In “Odds Against,” though, Francis creates for the first–but not the last–time a hero whose life is decidedly unaspirational, and in doing so, introduces his most long-running hero and a theme that would haunt much of his works: what do you do when the thing you most want is taken away from you, and you still have a lot of life left to live?

Sid Halley was a champion steeplechase jockey until a riding accident left him with a crippled hand and a bitter mind. He drags himself into his new job, acquired for him by his father-in-law, as a dogsbody at a private investigative firm, until one day he gets shot. While convalescing, he is once again dragged by his father-in-law into a mystery that will turn out to be much bigger than either of them expected. Sid will have to come to terms with who he really is.

Francis had a long fascination with the physically and mentally damaged, and Sid is his first, and most prominent, overtly disabled character. Still identifying as a jockey three years after the accident took place, he doesn’t know what to do with himself or what to get up for in the morning, until the villains make the mistake of not taking him seriously. He discovers that he is tough, fearless, and likes to win–no surprises there, but it turns out he is tough, fearless, and likes to win off the racecourse as well as on it–but that most people fail to see this in him, something he learns to use to his advantage.

Although there’s plenty of action here, and of course a tightly constructed plot that keeps you guessing till the end, the real suspense is in what Sid will do. Will he give up and go away, as he wants to? Or is he going to come back fighting? As Sid himself doesn’t know and is quite astonished at times at his own behavior, it’s impossible for the reader to guess (although of course we know how these books end, but still…), and the double tension drives the book forward to its nail-biting conclusion. “Odds Against” is not for the super-squeamish or fainthearted, as Sid’s injuries are pretty extensive, but it heralds a new step forward in Francis’s writing and now, more than 40 years after it was first published, is still fresh and shocking.

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