Book Review: Under Orders – Dick Francis

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Dick Francis’ Under Orders is a gripping and fast-paced novel from a veteran author. Following the often unplanned and occasionally even dubious (shock, horror) exploits of Sid Halley, jockey turned Detective, it is heavy on drama and action, and has a considerable sense of pace.

A respected figure in the horse racing community, Halley was obliged to retire when he sustained very severe injuries. He now makes a living as an investigator of sorts, with a marked preference for marching to his own beat and taking the work wherever he can get it (bank holidays not included). In Under Orders, Halley, somewhat inexplicably finding himself at the distinctly uncomfortable epicentre of three seemingly disparate investigations – into online gambling, race fixing, and the tragic murder of a young jockey, respectively – attacks each with a mixture of gusto and belligerence in a high stakes race to find and apprehend the culprit. Whatever Halley uncovers will undoubtedly have severe ramifications for the horse racing community, and he acts accordingly.

That is to say, he doesn’t inject much (any) tact into his approach.

Halley soon discovers that the three seemingly unconnected events are not as disparate as they initially seemed to be. What’s more, there are a number of individuals with a clear interest in forcing Halley to abandon his efforts, and his investigations sidle into dangerous territory, putting the people he loves in danger. Desperate to find answers and protect those caught up in the crossfire, Halley bludgeons through every obstacle to connect the dots and solve the mystery in a tense and exciting no-holds-barred ending.

(Shocker.)

Under Orders is an adventure that just barrels along, packed to the rafters with intrigue. Any momentary relief to the tension afforded by the occasional intervention of a comedic or romantic interlude (yes, they do actually happen, I kid you not) ostensibly for character development, provide a startling contrast to the sense of danger and jeopardy that so utterly characterises the rest of the novel.

Under Orders is well structured and confidently crafted, and is in possession of a great many enjoyable aspects. I was most impressed by the consistently exhaustive amount of detail, the setting (the horse racing scene, jockeys here, there and everywhere) and Francis’ undeniable talent for storytelling. If the devil is in the details, then he is eagerly dancing to Francis’ tune, because Under Orders practically brims with solid, factual information. This arguably lends the novel an impressive sense of dependable believability, and this firm injection of cold, hard realism ensures that the setting, so well and vibrantly described, practically leaps from the page, enabling a fully immersive read. Francis writes about topics he knows, and his mastery of those topics is palpable.

Additionally, no prior knowledge of the ins and outs of horse riding is necessary, as Francis explains everything well enough that there is little opportunity to be left by the wayside, floundering uncertainly, lost in a maze of meaningless terms and the occasional thoroughly bewildering acronym.

(I’ve had enough of bewildering acronyms.)

However, Under Orders is a classic Dick Francis novel, by which I mean that, having read one, I am able to more or less perfectly predict the structure and ending of all the others. The protagonist is of standard stereotypical stock (alliteration intended), being brave, stubborn, and recklessly dedicated to finding and revealing the truth, there are clearly defined heroes and villains, the former of which succeed in their endeavours, and the latter of which are punished in accordance with their heinous crimes (feel free to join in if you know the words), and the characters on the side of the angels run into a whole world of trouble and a not insignificant number of generally unhelpful people, but nonetheless eventually emerge victorious.

Additionally, there is little evidence of moral complexity, either in the behaviour of the characters, or in the novel as a whole. There are a few vaguely acknowledged grey areas, but they’re not explored or developed, which felt a little like a missed opportunity. The result may be light-hearted enough to match the sense of pace and tension, but I felt as if the narrative suffered, lacking complexity, maturity and depth. Connecting with the characters is difficult without some insight into what they might be thinking and feeling, even with some suggestion of their most prevalent motives, and as such I had little to no emotional investment in their behaviour and situations.

The protagonists in Dick Francis’ novels are heroes, replete with tragic backstories and a list of glowing accomplishments. While they may occasionally suffer from a number of decidedly less admirable personality traits, those uncomfortable factors are typically subsumed by an overwhelming horde of the opposite. Every so often, Halley does or considers something that may be considered not to be undoubtedly pure and admirable, but the moral consequences are bypassed by the simple expedient of categorising anything and everything under the idea of some sort of greater good or higher truth. There is little in the way of character development, and the romantic additions felt utterly extraneous, and also a little ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the plot is equally predictable, leaving little uncertainty as to what the result might be. While Francis’ aforementioned talent for storytelling makes it an interesting read quite irrespective of the content, I felt that it was somewhat lacking, vaguely akin to what I imagine would be the result of a fairly lacklustre attempt to write by numbers. All the necessary aspects are there, and it is undoubtedly cohesive, but it needed a little something more to impress me.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading Under Orders, but I was generally underwhelmed. It was in many respects too easy and too predictable a read, although the text and in particular the setting were detailed and vivid enough that it was thoroughly immersive. Sadly, I failed to connect on any level with the allegedly sympathetic character of Sid Halley, and I thought that more effort could have been expended to erase the damning predictability and inject some uncertainty into the conclusion. Therefore, despite enjoying many other Dick Francis novels, I rated it 2 out of 5 stars, and would not consider reading it again.

TV Review: Preacher – 1×03 ‘The Possibilities’

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AMC’s Preacher stormed onto our scenes, hitting hard and fast. Heralded by a number of increasingly vague trailers that hinted at the action but didn’t offer much in the way of detail, ramping up the sense of intrigue and anticipation, it came into play with all the subtlety of a battering ram, quickly and firmly establishing itself at the very top of many lists.

It hasn’t let up since. Frequently shocking and often controversial, it pulls no punches, and never shies away from difficult, controversial topics. It doesn’t allow for a quick and easy division of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in its plotlines, and certainly does not offer the scope for a breathtakingly simple identification of trope-heavy heroes and villains. As far as the characters are concerned, variety is the name of the game, and their motives are suitably dubious, preventing easy categorisation. They’re layered, complex and diverse enough to be realistic, but retain enough similarity to believably exist in a single community.

(Pause for breath.)

The third episode of Preacher is just as gleefully, shamelessly, unequivocally dark as the first two, gifted with a veritable boatload of oozing, evocative atmosphere. Entitled “The Possibilities,” the thematic focus of the episode seems to be on choices, and the ramifications. Some are made well, others badly, and from Jesse’s eventual acceptance of his odd new ability to Tulip’s insistence on pursuing revenge, there’s genuine and realistic diversity across the board. In this episode, as in the previous two, Preacher doesn’t fail to take into account some particularly harsh truths.

The pacing of the third episode is interesting, as it is primarily characterised by an intriguing mix of long periods of slow movement and relative inactivity, and then sudden bursts of shocking – and often violent – action. Preacher is heavy on blood and guts (metaphorically and literally, it’s like Christmas) and the structured pacing provides for a startling contrast between scenes, setting Preacher apart from shows that favour the consistent bludgeoning approach (that is the official term) of forty-five minutes of intense, death-defying drama. The weather in Preacher is oppressively hot, with little evidence of relieving rain or an occasional cool, stirring breeze, and this contrast between action and lethargy certainly has connotations of hot summer days. Preacher’s depicted weather goes a long way towards implementing a particularly anticipatory atmosphere, as in lingering heat tempers fray, and boiling points are reached absurdly quickly.

(I’m nodding approvingly.)

I thought this was a good, solid episode. Preacher has settled into a strongly recognisable pattern, featuring typically shocking material and a distinct fondness for exploring controversial topics and opinions with impunity. I thought the first episode dragged on far too long, bolstered with scenes that were useful neither for establishing the universe nor for developing the characters, but the second and third ticked along nicely, providing various new threads to existing plotlines, and further developing the introduced characters.

In the third episode, Cassidy chooses to reach out to the vampire hunting vigilantes, who, to his immense surprise, turn out not to be vampire hunting vigilantes at all, but rather a couple of blokes on the side of the angels with an inexplicable fondness for cowboy hats, Tulip (unsurprisingly) chooses to make another doomed effort to reach out to Jesse, and Jesse chooses, somewhat predictably, to yet again bewilder anyone and everyone by setting out on the long road to some sort of believed redemption, with the rest of the town getting dragged along behind him, regardless of their opinions on the matter.

Did I enjoy it?

Absolutely!

It was irreverent, unapologetically dark, and very well structured, furthering the main plotlines without losing sight of the all-important world-building detail.

However, it was also a little predictable. Tulip has been trudging the same path since day one, Jesse’s vacillating faith is par for the course, and Cassidy’s confrontation of the two blokes that he believes are stalking him is surely only to be expected, given his previously-aired prejudice against anyone reckless enough to hunt him down. As such, my favourite parts of the episode were the parts I couldn’t predict, which were in short the shock revelation in regards to the two taciturn antagonists claiming to be from ‘the government,’ and, subsequently, Cassidy’s interactions with the two men in question.

Cassidy’s major involvement in their plotline was nothing less than genius. Watching the three odd creatures bond over their shared beliefs (and general oddness) was decidedly entertaining, and inexplicably heart-warming. With many reasons to dislike each other, they nevertheless located shared ground, and despite mutual distrust, it was that shared ground that prevailed, an interesting response in a town in which violent behaviour is common on every day ending in ‘Y.’ The singularly bizarre nature of their conversation was great material, both entertaining and intriguing.

On a similar note, Cassidy and Jesse’s dubious testing of Jesse’s shiny new ability was also thoroughly amusing, and yet it did not lose sight of the darker options and consequences of what said ability might plausibly achieve.

(Cassidy may or may not be my favourite character. I admit nothing.)

As for what I didn’t like, it seems safe to say that I was simply a little unimpressed with the predictability of the rest of the episode, as the first two had, in every respect, been the opposite. This isn’t a major concern, but just my given reason for why I wouldn’t rate it as highly as the others.

To sum up, I enjoyed the third episode of Preacher a lot. Thoroughly dark and frequently hard-hitting, it doesn’t make things easy for the viewer. There are no attempts to use a cleverly discreet camera angle by which violence might be implied but not explicitly depicted, and the viewer is obliged to see and understand everything in truly graphic detail, complicit to the violent acts that have been committed. With such a talented cast, and clever writing and production – in particular, I found the exceedingly varied dialogue admirable, as it is a rare show indeed that conveys more in the spaces between what characters say than in long, flowery speeches – even the parts that did not, strictly speaking, exceed my expectations, were still very good. It was a strong, entertaining episode that bodes well for what comes next.

(Please excuse me while I clamber down from this soapbox.)