Former schoolteacher Felix Francis has taken over the “Dick Francis” franchise following his father’s death two years ago and released his first book in the series last year. I’m thinking that now perhaps it’s best to let Dick go and simply let Felix write as Felix. The words “A DICK FRANCIS NOVEL” adorn the cover of this year’s release, Bloodline, but the only thing that ties this novel to the dozens of Dick Francis novels in the past is that it’s a crime set in the world of horse racing.
Yes, we do learn about the world of broadcasting and race calling, and it’s well-done, too, a natural part of the tale rather than a lecture as is usual with Dick Francis novels. Full points to Felix for that.
But something is missing. I think it’s the writing style. Anyone can set a murder mystery in the world of racing – John Francome is an example – but if you’re hoping to appease Dick Francis fans, you need to truly ape the Francis style. People ‘sketch a goodbye’ in the world of Dick Francis; there are key phrases such as that which crop up in book after book, like old friends. Sentences, particularly in the action-packed bits, are short. Felix’s style is quite different to his parents’ and those old friends are nowhere to be seen.
Racecaller Mark Shillingford’s sister Clare apparently commits suicide, but Mark believes there is more to her death and that she was pushed. In investigating her death he enters into a world of blackmail and race fixing.
Mark appears to have relationships with women without knowing much about what they do outside the confines of the bedroom. After five years he is surprised to discover his ex-lover Sarah has a sister. And while his new lover knows what he does for a living – he’s a broadcaster and race caller – he’s in the sack with her twice before he asks her about her own career.
I found Mark as a hero rather one-dimensional and unimpressive. Yes, he grieves for his dead twin sister and for someone else who dies during the course of the action (no spoilers). But by the end of the book I hadn’t warmed to him in a way I’d warmed to some of the Francis heroes of the past.
Like all Francis heroes Mark has a lousy relationship with his father, which is consistent. Any dedicated Francis fan would expect it. So that at least is true to form.
I didn’t guess the murderer – in fact until three quarters of the way through the book I had suspected somebody else, so that at least was satisfying. But oh boy, did I get sick of the phrase ‘zombie eyes’ in the last couple of chapters.
In the Francis field of thrillers, this one is an ‘also ran’ to use a racing term. I’m not surprised it was only released as a trade paperback here in Australia and not a hardback; I suspect sales of Felix Francis books will not be in the same league as Dick Francis books unless Felix is marketed as himself rather than as part of the DF package. Taken on face value this book is a good enough mystery, but it doesn’t have the classic hallmarks of a Dick Francis novel from the DF heydays of the 60s and 70s. Available now, should you wish to draw your own conclusions, in all bookshops or online.