Dick Francis’ Under Orders is the first book he produced after a six year hiatus from penning some of the best detective fiction of the twentieth century. Sid Halley the hero of Under Orders has appeared in three previous Dick Francis novels Odds Against (1965), Whip Hand (1979) and Come To Grief (1995). Sid Halley is a private investigator who used to be a jockey. His career ended when he went down off his horse during a steeplechase only to have a horse crush his hand. Recovering from a life of self indulgent self pity to help his former father-in-law with a bit of an investigation he discovers he has a knack for the P.I. game and a legend is born.
Sid Halley stands as one of the toughest P.I. creations of any generation. He is smart, doesn’t go looking for trouble but when it comes his way he meets the challenge with nerves of steel. It should be obvious to anyone that a diminutive man who rides a 1200 lb horse over jumps at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour is not going to be afraid of much. Halley’s steel shines through in Under Orders as does the steel of those he surrounds himself with.
A day at the races takes a nasty turn when a horse dies, then a spectator dies both of seemingly natural causes and then jockey Huw Walker turns up dead with three bullets making natural causes an unlikely diagnosis. Throw into the mix that the jockey was riding for a trainer who had been rumoured to be fixing races and you have the recipe for an intriguing story. Nothing in a Dick Francis novel is predictable though and the variety of characters and their convoluted motivations as well as a predictable yellow press clouds the case for even the sharp eyes of Sid Halley.
Under Orders keeps the reader guessing while at the same time laying out all that we need to sort out some of the answers. By the end of Under Orders the threats to Sid’s girlfriend Marina and the threats to Sid himself are dire and arise from an unexpected quarter. Under Orders is a superb return to the bookshelves for Dick Francis.