Fiction: “Knockdown” by Dick Francis

So, afteknockdownr the interminable hell that was The Mysteries of Udolpho, I needed some quick things to read – basically, the less convoluted the sentence structure, the better. I’m slightly pleased with myself that I didn’t pick up something by Ernest Hemingway (because if you’re looking for lack of description, always choose Hemingway*). What I did pick up were two books by Dick Francis, 1) because it has been entirely too long since I last read something by Dick Francis, and 2) they were both mercifully, wonderfully short.

*now wait for me to actually re-read something by Hemingway and completely disprove that statement.

Knockdown is 238 pages about Jonah Dereham, a bloodstock agent for steeplechasers. Dick Francis’s novels always have some connection to horse-racing; in Knockdown, it’s direct involvement, whereas in the next book I read, Proof, it’s merely tangential. Jonah is an ex-jockey – he fell off one of his mounts and dislocated his shoulder, and jockeys tend to have an expiration date. As cool as it looks, jockeying is actually a rather rough sport (so says the couch potato). So Jonah has taken his talents with horses on the field and turned it into a fine business where he buys horses for trainers and owners and takes a commission.

The titular “knockdown” comes about when Jonah gets involved – tangentially, at first, but then directly – in an bloodstock agent ring that is intent on taking payoffs in order to drive up the prices of some of the horses they’re bidding on.

She was referring to the practice that had grown up among some agents of going to a breeder before a sale and saying, in effect, “I’ll bid your horse up to a good price if you give me a share of what you get.” Far more intimidating was the follow-up: “And if you don’t agree to what I suggest I’ll make sure no one bids for your horse, and if you sell it at all it will be at a loss.” [p. 67]

Honest Jonah tries to stay out of fighting the ring, but as he is constantly attacked, he decides to fight back. His allies are his girlfriend, Sophie, and his alcoholic brother, Crispin. Well, Crispin isn’t so much an ally as a concern and driving force for Jonah, but he’s there and important to the story.

While Dick Francis’s novels tend to get grouped in the mystery section (in libraries and yes, even my categories), not all of his novels follow the who-dun-it model. In Knockdown, we learn pretty early on who’s doing what and why (greeeeed) (sorry spoiler alert!: greeeeed). What we don’t know, and what propels the action forward, is the question: how is the protagonist going to resolve this struggle?

Not all mysteries are about finding out the solution. Many are about finding a resolution.

I feel like I should make a shallow joke about something after that uncharacteristically deep statement. But … I’m kind of tired, you guys. I gotta go to work in the morning, so instead, I’m just gonna kinda … trail off … and hope no one notices I half-assed this one.

Grade for Knockdown: 3 stars

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