Book Review: ‘Under Orders’ by Dick Francis

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Sid Halley is a thirty-eight year old champion jockey, disabled in a racing accident that destroyed his left hand. He now wears an artificial forearm and is a free-lance racing “investigator.” As the story opens, he is attending the Cheltonham Gold Cup Day with his ex-father-in-law and friend, Charles Rowland.

At an event attended by several thousand spectators, a death in the crowd is not very remarkable. But when followed by the sudden death of the horse that has just won the Gold Cup Race, and a jockey scheduled to run in a following race is discovered dead in the racetrack parking lot with three bullet holes in his chest, Sid naturally becomes curious. Especially when he returns to his London apartment to find two phone messages from that now-dead jockey.

Sid has had a successful career on Britain’s race tracks, has made a lot of friends and a few enemies in his new career. He has a habit of following a case in spite of threats and occasional attacks. His wife divorced him because of the risks he took. More recently, he has been dating an attractive and intelligent Dutch girl, Marina van der Meer, who works in a London DNA lab, and has an attitude similar to his own toward facing challenges and danger.

Sid counts among his friends both the murdered jocky, Huw Walker, who rode for well-to-do Lord Enstone, and Bill Burton, a trainer who manages some of Enstone’s horses. Sid phones Bill to be sure he’ll be at home next morning (an hour’s drive). The house appears to be empty when he arrives; he finally locates Bill asleep on a backroom sofa. It develops that his wife has taken the children and left him.

Bill tells Sid the marriage has been in trouble for months. “I said to her, ‘Why are you frigid these days?’” He paused and fought back tears by swallowing hard. “She said that Huw Walker didn’t think she was frigid.”

He and Sid talk at some length on who could have killed Huw at the racetrack. Sid thinks it was a professional job. They are interrupted by the arrival of a carload of police.

“Willam George Burton?” asks one.

“That’s me,” said Bill.

“I arrest you on suspicion of the murder of Huw Walker. And suspicion of fixing races.”

“You must be having a joke,” said Bill. But they weren’t.

Sid thinks the police have the wrong man. He makes a lunch date with Lord Enstone, who wants no part of this kind of publicity. Bill is freed on bail for insufficient evidence, but the newspapers are onto his story, and owners are lined up at his gate to move their horses elsewhere. He wants to hire Sid to investigate. Sid agrees to be there at six-thirty tomorrow morning for coffee.

He arrives at 6:25 to find a police car in the driveway, its blue roof light flashing. Juliet Burns, Bill’s assistant trainer, meets him, wide-eyed. “Bill’s killed himself,” she said. “He’s blown his brains out”

“What?! When?

“I don’t know. I found him in the den about half an hour ago and called the police.”

The young police officer is allowing no one to enter the house until the Scene-of-Crime officer has arrived. Juliet appears to be going into shock. Sid seats her in his car, while he takes pictures through the window of the den, then drives her to her home. When she appeared to be recovering, he returns to Bill’s back-stables, finds Fred, the head stable hand, and passes on Juliet’s instructions for the care of the remaining horses.

Sid’s investigation expands to on-line betting on the horses. Marina is seized from behind while walking home from work. She reaches back over her head and digs her fingernails into the man’s neck. He smashes his brass-knuckled fist into her face, and leaves her to make her own way back the short distance to her apartment. “I wasn’t robbed,” she told Sid, “I was given a message.” The note said, “Tell your boyfriend to leave things be. Savvy?” She saves her clipped nails for possible DNA evidence, then lets Sid take her to a doctor he knows, to repair her face wounds. Thereafter, he drives Marina to and from her lab every day, and her co-worker, Rosie, agrees to keep watch over her while she’s at work.

On a brief work break, she and Rosie are standing outside to get some fresh air. A motorcyclist has apparently been waiting for such an opportunity, shoots Marina in her thigh and speeds off, leaving Marina bleeding on the sidewalk. Rosie does what she can to stop the hemorrhage until the ambulance arrives.

Author Dick Francis has produced another detailed and ingenious tale of murder and justice, with a hero who risks everything to find killer and accomplices. The final identity of the villain will be confirmed by a single hair. But it is a conversation between Sid and Marina in the hospital that holds this reviewers attention: Sid is about to leave Marina’s hospital bedside, a day or two after surgery, when she stops him with:

“Oh yes,” Marina said, “and another thing.”

“What?”

“The policeman told me that you had told him that I was your fiancée.”

“Never!”

“Yes, you did. I asked the surgeon and he said yes, definitely, Mr. Halley told everyone you are my fiancé. Everyone but me, it seems.”

“It was the only way they would let me in to see you.”

“Oh. You didn’t really mean it, then.”

“I did ask you to marry me on Thursday afternoon,” I said, “But you didn’t answer.”

“That’s not fair. I was unconscious.”

“Excuses, excuses.”

“If you really meant it, then ask me again.”

“Do you want me to kneel?” I asked her.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Get down to my level.”

I knelt on one knee and took her left hand in my right. “Marina van der Meer,” I said, smiling at her, “will you marry me?”

She looked away from my face.

“I’ll think about it,” she said.

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