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Warning!!! Fanboy rating !I’ve been reading and re-reading the novels of Dick Francis since the early 1990’s and I’m hardly objective when it comes to judging their worth. I am aware that many critics consider him a ‘one trick pony’ who somehow stumbled over a succesful formula for writing murder mysteries set in and around the racing world, and then applied ‘rinse and repeat’ for about forty more novels written in the same manner, with the same type of characters and the same type of plot. Yet for me they are more comfort reads than guilty pleasure, as sure a thing to pick me up when I’m blue as a P G Wodehouse romp through a country manor.My all time favorite remains Whip Hand , which is also the first one I read, before the formula became apparent. It’s due for a re-read, but what I wanted to point out is that Reflex comes very close on the heels of number one in my preferences. Francis must have been on a good roll, as I noticed the two books were published in the same year (1981). In support of my rating I make note of :- there is actual steeplechase racing in the book, as Philip Nore, the protagonist, is still active on the racetrack as an amateur jockey- by now Dick Francis became aware that he needed to diversify his set-ups with other passions / interests and other avenues of investigation into the murders. In Reflex this hobby horse is photography, which plays right up into my own interests in the subject.- the plot is less linear and predictable than usual, as there are multiple avenues of investigation and more than one adversary / puzzle to be solved- there is a romantic complication, treated as usual with understated intensity and delicacy of touch (I’m starting to give credit to the rumours that the wife of the author was involved in one form or another in the production of his novels)Briefly, the novel starts with Philip Nore being asked to throw off a race by a venal owner with the tacit acceptance of the horse’s trainer. Simultaneously, Philip tries to help a fellow jockey whose father died recently in a suspicious car crash. This man, George Millace, was one of the best racing photographers, a passion that Philip shares as an enthusiast amateur who likes to carry his camera everywhere he goes in the hope he will stumble on a good subject or a good trick of the light. The son and widow of Millace are soon dealing with aggravation as their house is burgled first and then set on fire. It looks like somebody is looking for damaging images that the dead man was using to blackmail the crooks who can usually be found wherever apparently easy money attract crowds of the general public. A third storyline has Philip visiting his terminally ill grandmother and being required to find out a sister he never even knew he had.Philip is everything I have come to expect from a Dick Francis hero : a bit of a loner, self-reliant and perseverent, whipsmart yet modest, with a strong inner compass about right and wrong, even as he admits that making a living in the racing world sometimes requires compromise. He’s got a fine sense of humour and an easy, laidback demeanour that makes people underestimate him at their own peril. A difficult childhood spent in various improvised foster homes as his teenage mother is chasing drugs and parties at the height of the Flower Power rage, turns Philip in compensation into a seriousminded and independent adult who knows how to find happiness in the simple things in life, like running over fences at breakneck speed. Most people think, when they’re young, that they’re going to the top of their chosen world, and that the climb up is only a formality. Without that faith, I suppose, they might never start. Somewhere on the way they lift their eyes to the summit and know they aren’t going to reach it; and happiness then is looking down and enjoying the view they’ve got, not envying the one they haven’t. Philip knows he will never be the best jockey out there, but he is willing to give it his best, for as long as he is allowed to. But as he cannot accept to cheat as he is required, he needs a fallback option. This may come from the photography that he has until now considered just an expensive hobby. This hobby may be turned into a profitable career, or it may terminate his life in a brutal manner, as he accidentally comes in possession of the late George Millace compromising images. These photographs are cleverly hidden in plain sight, as underexposed film or junk prints full black or full white, or transparent plastic. The quest of Philip to reveal the secret in the throwaway box of the dead photographer was probably the most interesting part of the novel for me, as I had some personal experience with developing film and printing out on paper in my own bathroon laboratory, back before digital made all this stuff obsolete. I was also reminded of the movie Blow Up by Michelangelor Antonioni, another story woven around a crime and an investigative photographer. Beside the familiarity with the equipment and the techniques, I have also shared in Philip’s worries about the prospects of making money from my hobby: Everyone took photographs, every family had a camera, the whole Western world was awash in photographers ... and to make a living at it one had to be exceptionally good. One also had to work exceptionally hard. and in another place: I would never be a salesman.Taking photographs for a living, I thought ruefully, would find me starving within a week. I think I’ll hang on to my day job for a while longer...Coming back to the novel, the romance when it blooms may be a little abrupt, but again, I know it can happen in this unplanned and often irrational way. I could not find it in me to be grumpy or coldly analytical about Philip putting his heart at risk: It began in friendship and progressed to passion. Ended in breathlessness and laughter, sank to murmurs and sleep. If I were to find something to criticize about the plot, it is the fact that I could spot the bad guys a mile off, another drawback of reading too many of the Francis novels. Almost all his fictional bad guys are cast from the same mould, which makes me wonder sometimes if there is any basis in reality, some bully that marked his early years or his later career so strongly that he goes back to the master copy in every book he writes: A bully boy on the march, power hungry and complacent, a trampler of little men. With this image of the quinetessential bully I come to my last quote, and one of the explanations of the appeal the books of Dick Francis still hold for me: he believes in the power of good men and women to stand up and defeat the takers and the violent and the ruthless who believe the world belongs to the wolves: Most people’s lives, I thought, weren’t a matter of world affairs, but of the problems right beside them. Not concerned portentously with saving mankind, but with creating local order: in small checks and balances.Neither my life nor George Millace’s would ever sway the fate of nations, but our actions could change the lives of individuals: and they have done that. Recommended to readers as yet unfamiliar with the novels of Dick Francis as a good gateway drug, and to the fans as one of his better offerings.

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