Books & Literature

Book Review: Hands Down, by Felix Francis

THRILLER: Can Sid get to the bottom of what’s going on before he too becomes a victim, while, at the same time, saving his marriage?

Gripping and suspenseful, an engaging read I couldn’t put down.

Feature image credit: Simon & Schuster

Felix Francis, the youngest son of champion jockey and author, the late Dick Francis, continues the family tradition of writing exciting thrillers based around horse racing. As in the earlier Dick Francis novels, this narrative moves at a cracking pace just like the racing itself. For several years, Felix had assisted his father with research for his many novels moving on to co-writing numerous books, including Crossfire, on which they were working when Francis senior died in 2010. Although Felix is now the sole author, the books are still styled as Dick Francis novels.

The title Hands Down has its origins in 19th century racing terminology to describe a jockey who was so far ahead of the rest of the field he could ride “hands down” – meaning with a relaxed grip on the reins – and still win the race. It has since evolved to mean with no trouble at all in a wide range of contexts. Here it is clearly used somewhat ironically as trouble seems to stalk the protagonist, Sid Halley.

A marked contrast between the writing of father and son is the level of violence. Although Francis senior did not shy away from the violence Sid encountered as an investigator, Felix has increased both the extent and the frequency of violence. One might speculate this is a reflection of more difficult and darker times in the real world, or perhaps the willingness of readers to accept and/or expect more violence.

Halley is a retired champion steeple chase jockey and although I had not read all the intervening novels featuring Sid, I had no difficulty picking up the threads of where life’s twists and turns had taken this character. The racing injury which forced his retirement was subsequently made worse by a violent attack while working in his new career as a private investigator, which in turn resulted in him losing a hand.

The main thrust of the novel concerns corruption in the racing industry, however, there are a number of subplots which add interest and tension to the narrative. A range of developments concerning the injury to his hand, both good and bad, are cleverly woven into the wider story, especially in relation to problems in Sid’s second marriage.

I enjoyed the connections Felix makes to historical events. When Sid receives two odd phone calls from a trainer begging for help because he is being threatened, the author situates the stables and yard close to the ruins of Middleham Castle. Now in ruins, it was the childhood residence of King Richard III, who Shakespeare had declare, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” This is another clever use of irony as the trainer’s stables are burnt down and some horses are lost. Later, looking out across Wensleydale, where he can see Bolton Castle, which we’re told was the site of Mary Queen of Scots’ execution at only 44 years of age, Sid reflects on the transience of life. He affirms while each person is but a speck in the vast tide of history, individually our lives are meaningful and important.

Hands Down re-awakened my interest in Dick Francis novels and I particularly want to catch up on Sid Halley’s life leading up to his second marriage. Readers do not need any attraction to horse racing to enjoy these thrillers because, as in all good books wherever they are situated, it is the characters themselves and their interactions which we care about.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

The views expressed in this review belong to the author and not Glam Adelaide, its affiliates, or employees.

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster
Released: September 2022
RRP: $32.99

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