I'm not sure how many Dick Francis titles we have on our bookshelves. A lot. For years we bought his latest paperback soon after it came out.
Last week, among several second-hand paperbacks Mr Bookworm had bought from a roadside stall, I noticed a Francis thriller I didn't remember reading.
10-lb Penalty was published by Pan Books in 1998. The dedication reads – "With thanks to my grandson Matthew Frances, aged eighteen, and to Weatherbys and No 10 Downing Street."
At Amazon UK a reviewer writes – "Dick Francis has written many fine crime thrillers. He always sticks to his winning formula and usually produces a readable book. However, over recent years this formula has begun to look a little too familiar. 10lb Penalty is just one book too far. The characters are totally unbelievable, the plot weak and the outcome predictable. I have read ever Dick Francis book published so far but 10lb Penalty is definitely my last."
I disagree with this review. Before reading 10-lb Penalty I would not have believed that I could become so engaged with a central character who is 17 at the start of the story and only 22 at the end of it. But, despite his youth, Ben Juilard is immensely likeable, as is his father, George Juilard, who starts the story as a candidate in a by-election and ends it with a good chance of becoming the next Prime Minister.
Both the horsey and political aspects of the story are gripping, though I did wonder why, in an era when human beings can have hips and knees replaced, a much-loved horse with a broken leg still has to be put down.
As you would expect, there are masses of sites about Dick Francis and his books. There's a long page about him on the Alabama-based Josephson Family Home Page where 10-lb Penalty is described as –
"… a very understated novel that has little to do with racing of the equine variety. Instead, the emphasis is on election techniques at the basic level: door-to-door canvassing, town hall debates and rubber chicken dinners. The obligatory horse connections come via Ben's efforts as an amateur jockey but the central mystery centers on who is trying to kill Ben's father. The plot proceeds with a noticeable lack of urgency; things proceed at their own pace and no one ever appears too excited. Despite this dearth of energy, 10lb Penalty is a better than average effort by Francis."
I can see that the British political background wouldn't be of much interest to an American reader. In the light of real world events at Westminster, I found it most entertaining.