Odds Against

Dick Francis

Odds Against

Dick Francis

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Odds Against Summary

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Odds Against is a 1965 crime novel by jockey-turned-author Dick Francis. The first of Francis' novels to feature detective Syd Halley, Odds Against is in many ways a standard archetypal Francis yarn: it revolves around the unexpectedly seedy underbelly of the world of horse racing and involves a protagonist who has to overcome considerable odds to succeed. Francis's evocation of the horse-racing scene is particularly vivid because of his prior personal experience as a jockey. After six years serving in the Royal Air Force as a young man, he became an acclaimed steeplechase jockey, winning more than 350 races and being named the British National Hunt's champion jockey. In 1956, he served as a jockey to Queen Elizabeth. He was riding her horse, Devon Loch, in the Grand National, when the horse fell inexplicably at the last minute, just before winning, injuring them both. Francis continued riding for the Queen for another year until yet another fall led her to encourage him to retire – which he, albeit sadly, did. After retiring from riding, Francis became a journalist and novelist. Many of his works have been bestsellers in Britain and around the world.

Odds Against is narrated by protagonist Syd Halley, who, like Francis himself, is a former jockey. His career was ended by a particularly savage fall that involved a gruesome confluence of his horse's great weight, a sharp horseshoe, and Syd's hand. As he describes it, “I felt Revelation falling beneath me and rolled instinctively, my eyes open and quite unable to see. There was the rough crash on the turf and the return of vision from light to blackness and up through grey to normal light.” Post-jockeying, he has found a new career working as a consultant for a detective firm, Hunt Radnor Associates Detective Agency, that specializes in racetrack security and clients from the horse-racing world. He lives his life in a bit of a daze, not having fully moved on from his accident – until the day he is shaken awake, so to speak, by yet another injury. This time, in service of a case for the agency, he is shot in the abdomen and nearly dies. He survives, however, and in the process of recovering, discovers a new will to live.

Part of this recovery takes place in the sumptuous home of Admiral Charles Roland, Syd's former father-in-law. Syd continues to maintain a warm relationship with Charles even though he is no longer married to the Admiral's daughter. However, Charles has an agenda and invites Syd over for reasons of his own. At Charles's house, Syd is introduced to Howard and Doria Kraye, a wealthy and arrogant couple who quickly decide that Syd, with his deformed hand and lowly birth, is not worth treating politely. The Admiral wants Syd to spy on Howard; he suspects that Howard is scheming, aiming to buy Seabury Racecourses for the purpose of razing it to develop lucrative housing. Seabury Racecourses, it turns out, was the site of many of Syd's own races; it played host to many of his best memories and figured prominently in his coming of age.

Seabury has also been on the decline for some time, and Charles suspects Kraye is behind it, sabotaging the business in hopes of eventually encouraging its shareholders to sell it (to him). Syd spends the remainder of the book trailing Howard and Doria, their nefarious stockbroker, Ellis Bolt, and the Seabury Exec who turns out to be their inside man, Captain Oxon. Chico, a fellow detective, and Bolt's secretary, Zanna Martin, who suffers an even more debilitating disfigurement than Syd, help Syd in his endeavors.

Odds Against was the first of six Edgar Award nominations for Francis (which included three wins). The Edgar Award, named for American poet Edgar Allen Poe, honors the best mystery fiction, as well as several related categories, each year, and is awarded by the Mystery Writers of America. Francis's string of nominations and wins attests to the length and consistency of his literary career.

One of the most interesting themes within Odds Against is its sustained meditation upon disfigurement and the unique burdens it places on the lives of those who must live with it. Besides the protagonist, secondary character Zanna Martin is also disfigured; she has a badly burned face and wishes not for beauty but merely to look normal again. She and Syd bond over their shared – physical, emotional, social – pain, and in the end, her assistance is vital to the turn out of Syd's case against the Krayes. Much has been made by critics of how Francis's own experiences with severe injury shaped his writing and his perennial, insistent interest in injury and disfigurement. However, the non-biographical significance of these themes in his writing has been much less often discussed.
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