Pulse, by Felix Francis
This is another of the “written by me, but masquerading as my father” novels in the series which was alluded to in a previous review of this author’s work, Guilty Not Guilty and, as before, horse racing figures in the story, somewhat more heavily in this one. The book’s title doesn’t immediately conjure up a connection with horse racing, but as the plot develops, the association becomes clear. The narrator is Chris Rankin, at the beginning of the story the senior consultant physician on duty in the Cheltenham General Hospital Accident and Emergency Department, and I wonder if the gender of the person was deliberately initially withheld, facilitated by the use of an androgynous given name, to gull the unsuspecting into thinking this is a man, until the revelation that Chris is actually female, given that she has seen a gynaecologist? If so, I have to plead guilty; no excuses; but this shame could have been avoided by the simple expedient of reading the back cover synopsis: something I do try to avoid, however, preferring to approach the story as a tabula rasa.
Chris has some serious mental health issues so, even prior to the incident which sets this story in motion, her professional reputation is in some doubt. The death of a patient who has been brought in unconscious from Cheltenham races, and who was under her care, precipitates her suspension, consequently exacerbating her anxiety, but she refuses to sink into a spiral of self-recrimination, preferring the course of discovering, initially, how the man died, over & above the simple fact of the unknown intoxication, and subsequently, why he died, refusing to believe that it was suicide. When it becomes clear that she is making some progress, efforts are made to warn her off, but they don’t succeed, and she has to contend with doubt from her husband, given her recent demeanour, and the police officers who are investigating the death; this doubt is reasonably well-founded on her husband’s part, on the basis of her aforementioned mental health issues, but not from the police, who seem stereotypically slow to give Chris any credence.
The motive for the death is proved to be somewhat prosaic, but it is one which pervades horse racing completely, and probably always has done. The value of this story is not so much whether Chris will succeed in her quest, but how much it will affect her wellbeing, and if she will emerge a stronger person at the end of it, so from that point of view, the outcome is positive. Personally, I would feel somewhat presumptuous as a male writing in the voice of a female but, given that inhibition, I think Francis does a decent job in that respect. The book is not overlong; although 436 paperback pages is not inconsiderable; but the tension builds nicely, with the usual jeopardy for the protagonist along the way, so I think this is an acceptable addition to the author’s canon. The paperback I read was published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., London, in 2018 , ISBN 978-1-4711-5553-6.