When you can’t pick a favorite: Dick Francis & Decider

November 27, 2014

I love the crime thrillers of the last century and one of my favorite authors in the genre was Dick Francis.  The man lived an incredible life (RAF pilot, champion jockey, best-selling writer, just look at his Wikipedia bio!) and if his novels run to a formula, each mixed a new field of information into an abiding love for horses and a solid block of principles.  I’ve read all of them at least once, I give most of them house room and I can’t pick a favorite.   So, I’ll give the first shot to one of his later books, Decider

In Decider, Lee Morris salvages ruins.  In today’s vernacular, he’s a flipper, one of those guys who buys distressed or damaged buildings and turns it into a marketable property.  Lee’s an architect and he specializes in reclaiming “listed buildings,” those structures the British government protects from bulldozing and developers because they have historic or architectural interest.  Lee’s business is to turn these often dilapidated buildings into marketable residences without destroying the characteristics that make the structure “listed”.  Lee’s learned how to work with a variety of people in order to do his job and right now he needs these skills to help a family that’s not quite his.  You see, Lee has inherited a few shares of a racecourse that’s primarily owned by the Stratton family and the Strattons can’t decide what to do with the property.  As a matter of fact, a lot of the family members’ energy (and some of the family weath) is devoted to infighting and or foiling the schemes of more outrageous relatives.  Against his better judgment,  Lee’s pulled into the Stratton disputes and by the end, he has to expose the Stratton secrets to keep his own family safe.

While this looks like just another Dick Francis mystery with chase scenes and horses, it’s a really a story about the stresses and structures that exist in both buildings and families.  The hero watches the Stratton power struggles and compares the destructive members to his troupe of growing boys, trying to anticipate the stresses his sons will face and reinforcing their characters.  Without saying so, the author draws a parallel between the damaged but salvageable buildings Lee rehabs for his livelihood and the damaged relationships he sees both in the Stratton family and his own.  While some derelict places or relationships can be revived,  Decider implies that salvage can be a dangerous game and restoration is achievable only to a degree.  Some breaks are beyond repair.

There are some delightful architectural asides thrown in such as the argument to using peach canvas when you need a fabric shade.  Light shines through the canvas onto the faces below and the peach tint is more complimentary than say, yellow.  Peach makes old faces look younger and healthier and since the older customers are usually the ones with real money to spend, choose materials that make them feel happier.  Another observation is that the smells in a pub are supremely important.   You can buy a pub with a great location, wonderful parking and a great wait staff but if the place smells like ammonia cleaner, you’ve wasted your money.   Get the smells right and your customers will come. Those observations are the kind of things that I love in a novel, the sense of getting insight from an expert.   Dick Francis did this in almost every book, researching subjects so his tales gave the reader insight on some new profession or industry.  They are fascinating as well as enjoyable.

Only you can say if you want to know more and whether you’ll pick up this book.  If you aren’t sure, make your list of pros and cons but listen to your instincts and heed what appeals to your heart.   Like Lee Morris, let that be your Decider.

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