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Rat Race, By Dick Francis
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This is actually one of my favorite of the Dick Francis books.

There was an interval of several years not too long after this book came out when I often ran into people who, in conversation, seemed suited to recommending they “discover” Dick Francis’s books. In some cases, I would give them a paperback edition to get them started.

For those who had a bent for horses (as do I), I would suggest, and sometimes give as a gift, the first Sid Halley novel, Odds Against.

But for those who had no particular connection to the horsey set, I would recommend Rat Race as the starter Dick Francis novel. Although it is set largely at racetracks, the protagonist is actually an air taxi pilot and many of the key scenes occur off the racetrack: including in mid-air.

This particular Dick Francis novel has present day interest as a kind of contextual backdrop as Dick’s son Felix assumes the mantle of the Dick Francis books on his own.

Rat Race has some elements that are somewhat present in Gamble, the first solo Felix Francis effort. As with Gamble, some of the tension and conflict in Rat Race comes through a serious illness associated with the romantic interest of the protagonist: although in the earlier Rat Race it is not the love interest herself but a twin sister who has the illness.

Also, since the elder Francis’s death, Felix has come out and made statements as to some of the history of family involvement in the development of the Dick Francis novels. One of those was that the first portion of a Dick Francis novel Felix ever wrote was actually in this one: as a physics scholar, Felix wrote the description of the bomb that poses the first of a series of threats to the characters in the book.

Rat Race also has a particularly intricate plotline, and some action sequences that are intense even by Francis standards since some of the dangerous episodes involve mid-air perils and rescue operations.

Rat Race is also one of the novels in which Francis, always demonstrating strong psychological insights in molding his characters, is at an apex in delving the mind of a protagonist character. The book is unusual in that the protagonist is not the direct target of murderous intent in terms of the initial mystery, although he is in the line of fire at times.

Because of this, the investigative or analytical aspects of the storyline develop relatively late in the book: and come about when a personal event results in the protagonist needing a diversion from bleak thoughts associated with the romantic interest. Of course, as the protagonist begins investigating the mystery and finding information about the perpetrators, he then becomes a direct target.

Rat Race shows the reader the world of piloting an aircraft with the same detail and immediacy that Francis typically brought to the race riding scenes in several of the novels.

For the most part, while the personal injury quotient in this book is serious, it is not of the dramatic intensity of many of the other novels.

I find the pacing of Rat Race among the tightest of the generally tight-paced Dick Francis novels, which makes it an enjoyable read not only the first time but in later revisits of this book. This, combined with the unusual viewpoint that the air taxi pilot perspective affords of racecourse life, is the reason I rate Rat Race a good starter book for those who have yet to discover Dick Francis mysteries as an enjoyable source of recreational reading.


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