In twenty-two mystery novels since he made his debut in 1962 with Dead Cert, Dick Francis has informed whodunit buffs about the intricacies, lore, and seamy underside of horse racing; as a former steeplechase jockey in England, he knows whereof he writes. Despite the predictability of his settings, Francis avoids sameness from one book to the next; he almost always has a different hero-detective (only Sid Halley has appeared in more than one book: Odds Against, 1965; and Whip Hand, 1979), an uncharacteristic practice for mystery writers. Further, the equestrian erudition is organically part of the plots, so the reader inevitably becomes involved in the world of jockeys, trainers, gamblers, and stud fees. To those who are indifferent to the turf world, John Leonard (in The New York Times review of Francis’ Reflex, 1981) has said: “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don’t like God.”
The practice of developing a whodunit around specialized subject matter—from gemology to philately—goes back to Arthur Conan Doyle and S. S. Van Dine, and as a boy Francis read Edgar Wallace’s detective fiction, which features racing. In recent novels, Francis has joined other well-researched subjects to his usual backdrop, such as photography in Reflex and aeronautics in Flying Finish (1966). In Banker, there is a multiple backdrop, not merely a double one: racing, pharmacology, and investment banking. The book represents an advance for its author in another respect as well, for in it he travels the same route that Ross Macdonald and P. D. James, among others, have taken before him, transcending the limitations of the whodunit genre more fully than in any of his previous works. Indeed, not until past its midpoint does the novel become a full-scale mystery, and all of the preceding matter is not merely preamble for the subsequent detection; it has a life of its own.
Early in the novel, Francis begins to develop his two nonmystery plots, which are linked by the presence of his protagonist, investment banker Tim Ekaterin. In 1983, Francis said: “My heroes . . . are the sort of chaps I’d like to meet. . . . I do like to write about good types.” Ekaterin is such a man, an unheroic type who copes with the unsought and unwanted challenges—emotional, physical, and professional—that he confronts, yet he retains his old-fashioned morality clear to the last page of the novel, which spans three years.
In the first year, Tim moves through his apprenticeship at Paul Ekaterin Ltd., an investment banking firm founded by his great-grandfather. Due to the temporary disability of Gordon Michaels, his boss, Tim becomes responsible for deciding whether to grant loans to such people as a cartoonist who wants to establish a film-editing studio and the owner of a stud farm who wants to purchase a thoroughbred for five million pounds. He decides that the firm will invest both in the cartoonist’s talent (which turns out to be a profitable move) and the racehorse’s fertility (which nearly ruins Ekaterin’s budding banking career). Most of this first third of the book deals with the internal operations of the firm and tensions among its personnel, the latter initiated by a bimonthly gossip sheet, What’s Going On Where It Shouldn’t, which alleges a variety of questionable practices in London’s banking firms. Tim helps Paul Ekaterin Ltd. deal with the innuendoes and develops procedures to forestall future difficulties; he also is instrumental in exposing an in-house contributor to the scandal sheet. The new job thus provides Tim with executive experience and, unexpectedly, an apprenticeship in detection. It is the means, too, by which he comes to know Sandcastle, the five-million-pound thoroughbred, and his milieu. Recovered from his illness, Gordon Michaels invites Tim to the Royal Ascot, where he meets Dissdale Smith and Calder Jackson, the former a heavy bettor, the latter an unconventional veterinarian who cures horses with odd medications and a mystical laying on of hands. As the party leaves the track, having profited from Sandcastle’s success, Tim saves Jackson from a knife-wielding teenager who then flees into the crowd, an act that reveals Tim’s instinctive (even foolhardy) fearlessness when confronted with danger. Francis also introduces a third major motif of the novel in this first part: the developing relationship between Tim and Judith Michaels, Gordon’s young wife.
Although one realizes upon reflection that most of the first part of Banker provides expository background and foreshadows events to come, there is no clear indication of what form the crime and detection will take. With all the attention that Francis pays to Paul Ekaterin Ltd., the firm could prove to be a likely venue, and there are at least two potential suspects; the incipient affair between Judith and Tim also seems likely to have future ramifications insofar as the whodunit is concerned. Knowledgeable readers of Dick Francis, however, will confidently zero in upon Oliver Knowles’s stud farm, his expensive purchase of Sandcastle, and the details of broodmares, stallion fees, the estrus, and breeding sheds. Are the banking scenes “perfunctory” and is the love interest “expendable,” as Newsweek’s reviewer believes? Not at all; for while they may not bear directly upon the mystery, they are the means by which Tim becomes a credible character, a cut above the traditional two-dimensional series detective and a moral force working against the...
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