Longtime fans of mystery giant Dick Francis may be surprised, but also pleased, to know that, after a six-year publishing hiatus and at the ripe old age of 86 the master has returned with a new novel. Under Orders finds Francis in solid, if unspectacular, form, as his popular hero, 38-year-old jockey-turned-detective Sid Halley, prosthetic left hand and all, is once again mired in murderous doings on the British horse-racing scene. When jockey Huw Walker is shot three times through the heart, police suspicion focuses on trainer Bill Burton, an old ex-jockey pal of Halley's. Burton has discovered his wife's affair with Walker, so the motive looks right until Burton himself turns up dead. Halley is initially hired by wealthy politico and horse owner Lord Enstone to probe into matters, but soon enough the sleuth perceives too many crooked angles in the case to resist launching his own determined investigation.
Francis has definitely entered the 21st century with this tale, as subplots abound concerning Internet gambling and computer technology. Yet devotees of Francis' previous 40-odd books will undoubtedly welcome the familiar racetrack setting, the author's insider knowledge of the sport of kings and the cast of colorful, distinctive characters. As always, Halley is a delight worldly, savvy, cagily following instincts that elude the local constabulary, his dialogue filled with witty, jaded observations. In the course of events, Halley draws personal support from his ex-father-in-law Charles, finds rapprochement with ex-wife Jenny, and becomes closer to his new love interest, the courageous, plucky and beautiful Marina van der Meer.
On a plotting level, Francis carefully withholds tidbits of evidence to keep the reader guessing, then Halley exposes all in one big revelatory scene, which spurs the novel on to its combative climax. The device works, but the way the conclusion comes about seems a bit pat. Nevertheless, there's ambience aplenty, Halley remains a compelling leading man, and there's a lot of good writing to be savored along the way. The punters will love it.
Martin Brady writes from Nashville.