In Praise of a Reliable Narrator

By Jennifer K.

If you read crime and suspense fiction, you know that antiheroes and unreliable narrators are all the rage. Some of the bestselling novels of the last five years (like Gone Girl, The Witch Elm, and The Girl on the Train) feature morally compromised narrators. You simply cannot trust them.

I like all of those books. But I grew up reading the (many, many) mystery novels of the great British mystery author Dick Francis, and I miss his ever-so-reliable narrators.

Francis, who passed away in 2010, was a good writer who knew how to pace a whodunit. A former steeplechase jockey, he frequently set his novels in the British horse-racing world. His books almost always star an ordinary man-on-the-street hero who accidentally discovers evidence of some stupid, petty, cruel crime. Because he’s a stand-up guy who’s offended by the meanness of what he’s discovered, he sticks his nose in and makes himself a target, and has to choose whether to pursue the matter or let it go. (Spoiler: he never lets it go.)

They’re not perfect books – as Francis started writing in the 1960s, some of his books contain fairly dated social ideas – but they are great stories. And those ordinary, indignant, amateur crime fighting narrators are a pleasure to spend time with.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Proof: The classic mild-mannered Francis hero, Tony Beach is a widowed sweater-vest wearing liquor store owner. One day he tastes that the whiskey in a certain bottle isn’t what it says on the label. Tony doesn’t want any trouble, but it’s not right that people are buying Bell’s and not getting Bell’s. This leads him to discover a scheme that some violent people will kill to keep quiet.

Straight: Our hero in this novel, Derek Franklin, is grieving the sudden, accidental death of his brother. Trying to put the brother’s affairs in order, he discovers some dangerous secrets: diamond theft, adultery, assault. He spends the novel hobbling on crutches due to a broken ankle, and trying not to get murdered by his brother’s enemies.

Banker: In horse racing parlance, a banker is a sure winner – you can bet on him, and you know you’ll get your money back. There is, of course, no such thing. Tim Ekaterin is a literal banker, helplessly in love with his boss’s wife, who meets a horse faith-healer. Though he’s skeptical, he nevertheless becomes friends with the faith-healer. But something is very wrong here, as Tim soon finds out.

Not sure where to start with Dick Francis mysteries? Try any one of these!


And if you have thoughts about Dick Francis, the state of mystery fiction, and reliable or unreliable narrators, hit the comments and let us know.




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