Dick Francis has been one of my favorite mystery authors for nearly thirty years. He’s most famous for the mysteries that take place in the racing world, like Break In and Bolt or Whip Hand and Come to Grief (all of those absolutely great), but perhaps some of you don’t know that Francis wrote a lot of really terrific mysteries that are just around the edges of racing, or have really nothing to do with racing at all. These are mysteries like Reflex, about a man who is a jockey and an amateur photographer, and the mystery has to do with solving photographic puzzles. Or Straight, in which the hero is a jockey, but the mystery is really about his brother, who was a gemstone dealer. Or Decider, which has to do with architecture. Or perhaps my own favorite, because I like wine more than photography or architecture or even gems — Proof.
The hero of Proof is Tony Beach, who owns a wine shop. He, too, hovers around the edges of the racing world, because his parents and grandparents hunted and raced and rode horses in the military, but Tony is painfully aware that he has never had that kind of courage. He has other gifts: a nose and a palate and a passionate love for wine. He is providing the alcohol for a fancy event for a horse owner, when a terrible accident takes place, and his gifts — his nose, his palate, and his passion — draw him in to the investigation, both by the authorities and by a very appealing PI.
Tony is a great Dick Francis character: heroic and yet utterly human. We learn early on in the novel that he is prostrated by the loss of his young wife, and his life is grey because of it. This loss haunts the book, so that when Tony encounters some of the scariest villains in all of Dick Francis’s books (I won’t go into it, but brrrrrr), he’s afraid, but doesn’t react with the utter terror anyone sensible would have. Compounding this emotional greyness is his low-level conviction that he isn’t as brave, as virile as his father and grandfather, because he’s a wine merchant and not a soldier or a jockey. The way Francis weaves this into Tony’s character development is clever, rather than heavy-handed.
The plot is lively and interesting. As with many Francis novels, you learn a lot reading it: there’s a lot of drinking, mostly wine and scotch, and you get a lot of information about the industry along with the detecting. If you need more convincing, this is Rohan’s fifth favorite Dick Francis novel!
With just a few exceptions, Dick Francis novels aren’t linked to one another, so it doesn’t matter where you start. Why not start here? They stand up remarkably well to re-reading, and many of them have wonderful, strong female characters (though admittedly not this one.) If you’ve read them, which is your favorite? Can you pick just one?