Whip Hand is the Hound's book of the year for 1979.
There are two worlds in racing. Winning and losing. Private detective Sid Halley has gone from one to the other - fast. First his career as a jockey ended when he lost his hand in a fall. Then his wife said a cold good-bye. Now he's on the trail of thugs who crush losers. With vicious pleasure. These are people who aim to win - at any price. There's a syndicate of owners with a sideline in violent kidnapping. And Trevor Deansgate, a bookmaker whose hatred of favourites goes one deathly step too far... For the sake of his health, Halley had better return to winning ways. Because to lose is to die...
Halley is a former star jockey who, through a couple of traumatic events (detailed in Odds Against), has lost his left hand. He’s taken up a new career as a racetrack investigator, and now uses a prosthetic left hand. This novel begins one night when Halley gets a visit from Rosemary Caspar, wife of well-known and successful trainer George Caspar. She is worried because a few of the horses her husband trained have fallen far short of expectations. All of them were brilliant racers as two-year-olds, but have “fizzled out” since then.
Halley’s first reaction is that this sort of thing happens, and that Rosemary Caspar is making much of nothing. But she persists and asks Halley to guard her husband’s latest “find,” a horse called TriNitro, to make sure that he’s not tampered with before the upcoming Guineas race. Halley reluctantly agrees, and begins to ask some questions.
In the meantime, Halley’s ex-father-in-law Charles Roland gives Halley another commission. Halley’s ex-wife Jenny is in serious trouble after getting involved with a shady operator she knows as Nicholas Ashe. It seems that Ashe bilked quite a lot of people for quite a lot of money by using a fake charity scam. Ashe apparently used Jenny’s name and now she herself is under investigation. The only way to clear her name is to find Ashe, who seems to have disappeared. Halley most emphatically does not want to take this case. He and Jenny had a nasty, ugly divorce and she is particularly hurtful and bitter towards him. But his regard for Roland finally pushes Halley to accept this case, too.
Halley has no sooner started to investigate the performance of George Caspar’s horses when he’s approached by Lord Friarly, a powerful owner for whom Halley used to ride. Friarly’s bought into a horse-owning syndicate that he believes may include some dubious operators who are “fixing” the outcomes of races. Commander Lucas Wainwright, Director of Security to the Jockey Club, thinks the same thing and both men ask Halley to look into these syndicates. Halley agrees, chiefly because he thinks that shady syndicate members may be behind the mysterious underperformance of George Caspar’s horses. The more Halley looks into this case, the more dangerous it becomes for him as some very nasty people get wind of his investigation.
Francis, of course, was steeped in racing and his expertise shows clearly. Readers get a real feel for the track. This isn’t really a book about sport, though. Francis doesn’t get overly technical nor focus overmuch on the details of racing. So you don’t need to be a racing fan or even enjoy sport all that much in order to enjoy the story.
This novel is often called a thriller, and for good reason. There’s plenty of action in the story and the pace is quick. Halley has more than one narrow escape, too.
A fascinating character, Sid Halley solves an engaging mystery against a backdrop Francis knew intimately. The action is well-timed and the story and characters believable.
About Dick Francis:
Born in Lawrenny, South Wales, The United Kingdom in 1920. Dick Francis CBE (born Richard Stanley Francis) was a popular British horse racing crime writer and retired jockey. He died in 2010.
His son Felix has continued the series.