Book Review: “Dead Cert” by Dick Francis (1962)

A friend recommended this to me, and though it’s not the sort of book I normally read, I gave it a shot.

Dead Cert is told from the perspective of Alan York, an amateur jockey who is horrified when his friend Bill Davidson falls during a race, and dies from his injuries. York, who was right behind him when he fell, is convinced he saw a wire used to trip his friend’s horse, but on returning to the scene finds nothing.

But York isn’t the sort to give up, and keeps digging, trying to bring Davidson’s killers to justice. In so doing, he uncovers a taxi company acting as a front for a protection racket, a systematic scheme to rig races, and a beautiful young woman for whose affections he competes with one of his fellow riders.

It’s a classic mystery book, and York is a likable protagonist. His guts, determination, and stoicism make him easy to root for, even when he does run some pretty crazy risks. The writing is snappy and clever, and moves things along briskly and wittily.

All in all, it’s a really good book. Now, as it happens, I was able to guess who the ultimate “baddie” was the minute they were introduced.  Which is fairly early in the book, but there were plenty of tell-tale signs. And yet, this diminished my enjoyment of the story not at all. Even being pretty sure what would happen, seeing it unfold was still a treat, thanks to how well-written the story was.

More than the plot itself, what I really enjoyed was the portrayal of everyday life in early 1960s Britain. The social customs feel quaint and alien to a modern reader. That’s a compliment. Francis captured the setting beautifully,

While reading about this book, I came across this gem of a quote from The Guardian‘s obituary for Francis, describing his writing:

It was an American style that many clever people in England had attempted to reproduce without much success, and it was a wonder how a barely educated former jump jockey was able to do the trick with such effortless ease.

Yeah, pretty crazy that a former jockey would be able to write a book about being a jockey, isn’t it?


  1. I believe this was his first fiction book – he wrote something like 39 more of them. He collaborated with his wife, an English major and a reader for a publisher. He says that “Dick Francis” was the name for both of them, but it is clear that both of them were remarkable people. I’ll have to pick one of his books up to read, in my quest for new books to read. Thanks for the inspiration, Berthold.

  2. Book reading should be more about the journey than the destination. If the story is good, if you’re connecting with the characters and their struggles, then who really gives a damn if you figure out the ending before the big reveal? It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised by a genre you don’t normally read!

  3. I can’t remember if I read this particular story, but I do remember binge reading Dick Francis many decades ago. I actually have fairly catholic tastes in reading: if it’s well written, I’ll likely read it. lol
    I love the ‘reality’ that Francis brings to his novels. I’m not sure if what he says about the racing industry is true or not, but it /feels/ pretty true. Crime always seems to gravitate to the areas where there’s lots of money changing hands. And humans are eminently corruptible!

    1. You’re right; it does feel realistic. He does a great job portraying both human vices and virtues.

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