The second book by Dick Francis I read was Proof. Obviously, I’ve read it before — I’ve read all of his novels before — but I liked this one because while his standard genre of horse-racing is present, it’s in the background, and a topic that is very near and dear to my heart takes the forefront: wine and liquor.
Our narrator is Tony Beach, a young widower who owns a successful wine and spirits shop. Tony is a naturally … I’m not going to say “timid,” because it doesn’t really fit. He’s content in his life (in spite of desperately missing his wife, Emma), and he’s not one to go searching out trouble or ways to put himself in danger. He has a bit of guilt around his self-perceived cowardice, as he is descended from a steeplechase jockey who died on the racetrack, and his father’s father was a war hero.
In college, Tony traveled abroad to France and found he had an affinity for wine, wine-making, and wine-tasting. He had developed a parlor trick where he could distinguish different types of chocolate by taste, and his mentor had him translate that skill to wine. That opened up the possibility of building his own retail wine business, which expanded to spirits. He is occasionally hired to cater garden parties, and we meet Tony at one such garden party. He is in the middle of bringing more champagne to the tent when a horse trailer tragically breaks loose and rolls downhill, right into the tent. It collapses, and Tony springs to action. He and a new friend, Gerard, are able to rescue a good amount of people, though there are a couple of casualties. Gerard happens to be a private detective, of sorts – he is a security agent hired by corporations to solve white-collar crime without getting the police involved. And when Gerard hears about Tony’s parlor trick, he thinks he might pick Tony’s brain about his most recent case: tankers full of scotch whisky disappear from their route, and then reappear completely drained.
Tony also gets involved with having to go to numerous bars in the surrounding area, trying to see if any whiskys have been … not forged, because one can’t forge whisky, but … impersonate? No, that’s not right either — basically, seeing if what the label says on the bottle is correct. Laphroaig scotch has a very distinct taste, and if someone wants to drink Laphroaig, he had better be paying for Laphroaig and not, say, Allen’s Coffee Brandy. So the local constabulary of Scotland Yard has Tony go and sip whisky, every day, searching for fake whisky:
“You mean you might find it,” he said, “if you drank at every hostelry from here to John o’Groat’s?”
“Just Berkshire and Oxfordshire and all the way to Watford. Say fifty thousand places, for starters. A spot of syncopation. Syncopation, as you know, is an uneven movement from bar to bar.” [p. 162-163]
Much like a Johnny Gossamer novel, the missing tankers and the masquerading liquors turn out to be the same fucking case.
I really like Proof, because you don’t have to know all the jockey jargon that Dick Francis usually discusses in his novels. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because there isn’t — but there are all sorts of these other avenues that Dick Francis has experience in — or at least, knows people in the arena that he wants to write about that he can ask questions of. I don’t think Dick Francis was a sommelier at any point in time, but almost everyone has had at least some wine and can appreciate that some people may have developed palates with regards to wine.
Basically, I wish I could do that – tell what wine it is by taste. Unfortunately, my palate is not developed whatsoever. Especially because I’m usually chugging it straight from the neck while Hannibal‘s on — OH GOD ONE MORE EPISODE OH GOD I MADE MYSELF SAD AND HORRIFIED — anyway, subtlety of flavors is not my strong suit. I am a Will Graham as opposed to a Dr. Lecter in that regard.
(Here’s the part where I stop talking about Hannibal – I can do that tomorrow, when I review the book Hannibal by Thomas Harris because I am ALL ABOUT SYNERGY AND MY LITTLE DEAD CANNIBALISM SHOW)
Anyway. I like the book. I know I’ll read it again someday. While Tony is a widower, and moments of grief do come into play in the story, it doesn’t weigh on Tony’s personality – which is good, as he is our narrator, and that would not make the book move quickly. The friendship between Tony and Gerard is a strong, fast friendship, and in a way, I wish I could read about another adventure they may have together, because they make a great team.
When Gerard is telling Tony about his enterprise as private detective, Tony makes this observation (via his narration):
Be grateful for villainy, I thought. The jobs of millions depended on it, Gerard’s included. Police, lawyers, tax inspectors, prison warders, court officials, security guards, locksmiths and people making burglar alarms. Where would they be the world over but for the multiple faces of Cain. [p. 162]
Yes — thank you, villainy, for ensuring that I get to keep my tax inspector job.
But I still say that wine trick would be pretty cool and could also make a lot of money.
Grade for Proof: 4 stars