Several of you encouraged me to try Dick Francis’ mysteries when I posted following his recent death. I took your advice. Thank you. Decider was my first Francis, but it won’t be my last.
The hero of this novel is Lee Morris, an architect and builder who specializes in converting ruined historic buildings into habitable homes and usable places of business (which serves very well as a metaphor for his activities in the story).
He’s a strong, independent, honest man, but no plaster saint. He lusts (passively) over younger women, and his marriage, to a beautiful woman he once loved passionately, has now gone cold. He’s terrified his wife will leave him, though, because he loves the life he’s made, and the six (!) sons she’s given him.
When he’s approached by the managers of the Stratton Park racecourse, asking him to try to influence the board of directors, he’s not much inclined to help. He’s owned shares in the racecourse since his mother’s death, as she was once married to a member of the aristocratic Stratton family. He has little interest in horse racing, and none at all in a closer association with the Strattons, of whom his mother had traumatic memories. Still, for reasons of his own, he gets involved with the family dispute—some Strattons want to tear the course down and sell it, some want to rebuild and modernize the grandstand, and others want to change nothing. A few of them are rather nice, more of them are passive and ineffectual, and a couple are dangerous loons. Before long a spectator has been killed in a steeplechasing accident, and the grandstand has been blown up, nearly killing Lee and one of his sons. The Stratton family, like all aristocratic families in fiction, has dangerous secrets, and there are those who will go to any lengths to keep them covered up. In the end, Lee’s life and those of his sons depend on his ability to solve the mystery.
In the same way that Jane Austen’s novels are comedies of manners, this book is a mystery of character. Not merely the well-drawn, vivid characters author Francis sketches, but the idea of personal character and integrity. Lee Morris among the Strattons stands out by virtue of his decency, his sanity, and his human caring. A passage from a friend’s old diary, which he reads (with permission), gives a hint at the theme:
More rumors about Wilson Yarrow. He’s being allowed to complete his diploma! They’re saying someone else’s design was entered in his name for the Epsilon prize by mistake! Then old Hammond says a brilliant talent like that shouldn’t be extinguished for one little lapse! How’s that for giving the game away? Discussed it with Lee. He says choice comes from inside. If someone chooses to cheat once, they’ll do it again. What about consequences, I asked? He said Wilson Yarrow hadn’t considered consequences because he’d acted on a belief that he would get away with it….
I found Decider a most satisfying book, on several levels. Highly recommended.