Under Orders is the long-awaited latest installment in Dick Francis’s mystery novels dealing with ex-jockey turned sleuth Sid Halley. I have to admit that I’m kind of biased; Francis is one of my favorite writers of any genre. Starting the first page feels like being in the company of a good friend. Though I have been to horse races on an occasional basis at Hot Springs, I know very little about the racing world that is the backdrop to all of Francis’s novels. That is no detriment, however, to being swept up in Sid Halley’s world of the steeplechase, murder, and mayhem caused by fixing races and ruining reputations and lives. At age 86 and following a six-year-hiatus since his last book was published, the three-time Edgar Award winner proves he still has what it takes to deliver the goods.
The action begins on Cheltenham Gold Cup day. Sid Halley’s “onetime-father-in-law, my confidant, my mentor and, without a doubt, my best friend,” Rear Admiral Charles Rowland, has invited him to share the use of Lord Enstone’s private box seats. Lord Enstone also hires Sid to investigate why his horses don’t seem to be winning as much as he thinks they should. Fixing races is a dangerous game, and Sid’s investigations into this matter, Internet horse gambling, and an apparent murder/suicide (off which he’s warned by threats to his girlfriend’s safety and life) serve as proof of that.
Death is on the agenda alongside steeplechase racing on that rainy Cheltenham Gold Cup day, beginning with a middle-aged man who dies after a heart attack. This has little to do with the subsequent events in Under Orders, but he is “laid on the closely mown grass, exactly where the afternoon’s winners would later be.” This is the first death of three that day at the track. Legendary horse Oven Cleaner wins the Gold Cup for the third time then, as its saddle is being removed, staggers, collapses on top of its owner, pinning her leg underneath, and dies, a tragedy all of England mourns. The third death is of the rider and winner of the Triumph Hurdle, Huw Walker, who is discovered by a woman at the races leaning up between two vans against a wheel with three .38 bullets in his chest. A friend of Halley’s, Huw Walker was one of Lord Enstone’s jockeys.
Bill Burton, an ex-jockey turned horse trainer in whose stables Lord Enstone keeps his horses, was seen and heard berating Walker earlier in the day. Was the tongue-lashing for failure to ride “under orders,” thus winning the race instead of throwing it? Or was it Burton’s jealousy after discovering that Huw and his wife were having an affair? It certainly doesn’t look good for Burton when he is found later with the same .38 in his hand and the back of his head blown off in what appears to be an open-and-shut case of suicide.
Under Orders is a tour-de-force, a very welcome return to mystery writing by Dick Francis, and I hope he has many more years and novels to go in his life. It’s not a necessity to have read any of his previous novels to fully appreciate Under Orders, but once you’ve read it, if you haven’t read his other books, you will be feverishly searching them out. I’m dishing out high praise, but it’s all deserved, and more experienced reviewers than myself have done it even more so. If you’re looking for your next mystery fix, and you’ve tried the rest, you should try the best.