Book Review

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

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 [2017], ISBN 978-1-4711-5553-6.

Book Review

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Guilty Not Guilty, by Felix Francis

In case the reader should be in any doubt about the provenance of the author and the genre to which this book appertains, there is a helpful attribution at the bottom of the front cover; of the paperback anyway, published in 2021 [2019] by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4711-7319-6: this is a Dick Francis novel. Now, not being either an aficionado or a connoisseur of this particular genre, I don’t know what qualifies this book to be so described: unless there is a specific character or characters who recur in every story, it strikes me as odd that another author, however closely related or otherwise, should claim some sort of continuity with & from the original; in this particular case, it seems unlikely, other than the tenuous connection with the world of horse racing. All that said, on the evidence of this one, I might be tempted to read one of this author’s father’s books, having been reticent previously, given my general lack of interest in the so-called sport [and my growing concerns about the animal welfare aspect], a not insignificant dislike for the more well-heeled patrons, and an inherent disdain for the compulsive & addictive gambling entailed.

The horse racing element is minimal in this story, which is a murder mystery, in which the main character, Bill Russell; aka the Honourable William Herbert Millgate Gordon-Russell; has to deal first with the news, given to him while he is volunteering as a Steward at Warwick racecourse, that his wife, Amelia, has been found by her brother Joe, strangled in her kitchen at home while he has been away; then he has to contend with being accused of this awful crime, and all the repercussions for his life which proceed therefrom. He suspects that he has been accused of the crime by his brother in law, who had latterly become an abusive and potentially violent individual, targeting Bill, Amelia, and her mother in roughly equal measure. Much of the story is written in the first person, narrated by Bill, and it is reasonably clear that he is truly innocent, and not schizophrenically deceiving himself, or spinning a fictitious narrative, in the style of the protagonist of one story by another well known [arguable the best known] murder mystery writer, in which the narrator is eventually proved to be the killer.

Endeavouring to prove that Joe Bradbury was the killer is doubly difficult, because initially, the police cloddishly believe that Bill is guilty, but also because Bill has to contend with the grief of losing the wife he loved desperately, and it is this aspect of the story which is handled with a good degree of sensitivity. Not unexpectedly, the media cast Bill in the rôle of villain, and this opprobrium only exacerbates his feelings of guilt, despite having been as accommodating as he could possibly have been with Amelia’s depression and suicide attempts, aggravated to no small degree by her brother’s venom. He needs to find the real killer, but when nearly everyone, with a few notable exceptions, believes that is he, that is a very difficult task. The story is nicely paced, and there is a twist at the end which is suitably poignant. I would certainly be willing to entertain another of this author’s books and, given that he has written eight others, and co-authored four with his late father, I would say that was an even money bet.