Not every novel is a classic. Visit any English class and you’ll hear that a lot of novels are pulp or, as Capote said, “That’s not writing; That’s typing.” I won’t argue that point (my mom didn’t raise anyone that foolish) but I think some “popular” novels get less respect than they deserve. These books, whose primary purpose is entertainment, often have insights into the human condition. To ignore the good in these stories is to turn a blind eye to real gold.
Dick Francis’s 24th novel is called Proof but it could have used one of his later titles, Come to Grief. Here, Tony Beach is trying to live a reasonable life under the weight of a double burden. His wife passed away six months before and he’s still mourning her death. The second is the shadow of a family legacy: Tony’s father and grandfather were famous as brave men and riders but Tony fears the damage that comes from falling off a horse. So he sells wine and spirits for a living, watches other people ride horses and remains convinced he’s the family coward.
It’s Tony’s connections to the horse world that have him catering drinks at a party where his own talents are called into play. Some restaurants are selling inferior wines and whisky under the labels of superior spirits (Only oenophiles and single-malt scotch drinkers will grasp how heinous a crime this is) and Tony’s knowledge and taste-memory skills are used to investigate the fraud. Once the criminals learn he’s involved, Tony discovers for himself whether not he deserves to be called a coward.
Between the story and some interesting background on spirits (each distillery can recognize it’s own product not by taste but by a chemical analysis called a profile) are some spot-on observations of humanity. How bereaved people are often expected to act as if they’ve accommodated their loss when their sorrow is painfully fresh; why forgiving a law-breaker may be sensible but removing the consequences of breaking the law is foolish and that while loss may be sudden and devastating, recovery is the process of years. These may be just observations to the casual reader but to someone grappling with grief or injury, these nuggets of sense can be touchstones to be remembered and used. They make Proof so much more than just a Story.
As for the title, Proof may mean the measure of alcohol in this drinks-related tale or it may be the evidence required to establish the truth of the matter, whether that’s a bottle of Scotch or the content of someone’s character. According to Tony, the proof of alcohol was once tested by mixing it with gunpowder and fire. If the mixture burned with a steady blue flame, the drink held at least fifty percent alcohol. Of course technology can determine the degrees of alcohol in a bottle these days but that won’t work on people. To gauge the content of their characters may still require a trial by fire.