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.
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.