It's my own fault, really. A week in France and I had my Ed McBain for the flight over, followed by a substantial looking Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue) for which I had high hopes (The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay being a big favourite of mine).
It turned out that I developed an aversion for the Chabon very quickly. I'm not sure what it was, but I was disorientated early on and couldn't recover. My younger self would have ploughed on regardless, but my old mind wouldn't let me (not enough years left and too many books).
When it came to finding an alternative, the amount of reading material in English that I could lay my hands on was extremely limited. The only book that caught my eye was For Kicks by Dick Francis.
An alternative was to give Hemingway's Le Vieil Homme Et La Mer a go. The problem with that is my lack of proficiency in French (something of an understatement). Though Hemingway's use of language is so clean and lean that I can gain the gist of what's going on much of the time, to do it properly would take far too much use of a dictionary or Google Translate to make it satisfying.
For Kicks won out on account of the simplicity of the process of reading and it gave me plenty to think about.
It's an older novel. Published in January 1965 just after I was born, like me it's pretty dated stuff. Not that it's without charm.
The Earl of October drives into the life of Australian Daniel Roke with a slightly implausible offer. October is seeking out someone who understands horses to investigate curious goings on in the English National Hunt scene. Eleven horses with little hope have finished first and none have shown any signs of being doped. It's a scandal that could ruin the sport and October is too big a fan to let that happen. He's tried before, hiring a journalist who died in a car accident at the point where he may have been gaining headway with his investigation. Now he's desperate enough to pay Roke a huge sum of money on account of a chance conversation in a nearby town. It's all rather quaint and comforting.
Roke, bored by a life where he is responsible for the upbringing of his younger siblings, jumps at the chance. So what if he'll have to slum it with some rough types around the training yards of the UK? He can fit in by growing an pair of sideburns, donning a leather jacket and twisting his Aussie twang into a cockney patter.
There's lots of over explanation and the characters are like a bunch of hammy actors trying to make their way in am-dram. Occasionally there are hints of sex and glimpses of naked women or their undergarments that seem to be aimed at appealing to the 1960s male and helping to shift a few extra copies. The observations of class structure are stereotyped, the action is slow and the dialogue overlong. There are twists and turns along the way and as the story comes to a close the danger hinted at in the opening chapter is finally realised.
Which doesn't sound like a great set of ingredients and makes me wonder why I was willing to carry on with this when Telegraph Avenue was added so quickly to the DNF pile.
I think that has to be because of the plot. Underneath all the faults, the intrigue is sown early on. The world of horse racing and gambling is perfect for a crooked tale. And Roke himself, though he may go on a bit, carries himself with dignity and charm throughout.
If it were a horse, For Kicks would be a bit of a plodder. It might win a couple of long races on soft ground when stamina was of a premium, especially if the handicapper shaved off ten thousand words or thereabouts. Even so, it was fun to read on account of its subject matter and the underlying concept of the mystery.
Worth the effort and passed the time.