The Re-Read Project – Flying Finish
“Through the window I saw Tom Wells come out of his bungalow, staring first up at the circling fighters and then down at the D.C.4. He shrugged his arms into his old sheepskin jacket and began to run towards me over the grass.”
If you’ve read my other Dick Francis posts, you’ll know I normally start with the first line of the book. I didn’t do that this time because, to be completely honest, in my opinion the first line of Flying Finish isn’t quite on-point as his first lines normally are. For the record, this is the book’s first line:
“‘You’re a spoilt bad-tempered bastard,’ my sister said, and jolted me into a course I nearly died of.”
I mean, yeah, reading that, it does pack a punch, but I’m not sure it’s really the sister that jolts the main character into his course of action and, to be honest, we don’t hear much more about the sister, during the rest of the book, so – all things considered, the closing paragraph has more impact for me.
Why? Well, Dick Francis books provide a master class in novel writing on many fronts – there’s no way I’ll touch on them all, but here are a few:
- Dialogue: sharp, witty, natural
- Description: saying so much in so few words – I often think to myself, “I need to go back and read that detailed description he gave of XYZ,” only to find the description itself is very brief – just a few short words that paint a comprehensive picture.
- Pacing: Dick Francis is the Lay’s Potato Chips of mystery novels – “Betcha can’t eat just one,” becomes “Betcha can’t read just one …” chapter, that is. I still can’t read just one chapter, even though I’ve read all the books a dozen times and I absolutely know what’s going to happen.
Another thing he’s good at? Action. Not just writing strong action scenes, although of course, he’s great at that, but also knowing when the action needs to be included.
This is key.
Some scenes need to be in your book.
And some don’t.
Knowing which is which can be very, very difficult.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this when reading a book, or watching a movie, that this big thing you’ve been waiting for, and building to, and holding your breath to experience … just gets glossed over.
I first really got thinking about this when I heard a movie review of The Ides of March. The reviewer was complaining about a pivotal scene in the movie which … well … here’s an excerpt from The Guardian‘s review of the movie:
“At one crucial moment, however, we are left outside, invited to speculate, when the governor calls on his campaign manager to join him in his black limousine, parked in a dingy alley. Hoffman dowses his scarcely touched cigarette, and gets in the car. We can’t see through the tinted glass and we don’t hear a word. But the camera, placed across the road, edges a few feet forward as if urged by the viewer. When Hoffman emerges and the car drives off, we know a Rubicon has been crossed.”
While the above review seems to imply not seeing or hearing anything of the pivotal scene in the movie is just fine, and very effective, and we still know “a Rubicon has been crossed,” the reviewer I heard was not impressed at all. His point was, if I’ve invested that long in watching a movie, I’d better experience the crossing of the Rubicon.
And I tend to think he’s right.
Some authors gloss over difficult or challenging scenes. They use the argument that they’re leaving the details up to the reader’s imagination.
I’m not saying it’s always easy to know which scenes to full-on show and which to skip over in the interests of pacing, but I will say, Dick Francis books always seem to get it just right.
I never feel robbed, cheated, or bored when reading Dick Francis, which is a sign – to me – that he gets it just right.
You may be thinking I’ve come a long way from quoting the closing paragraph way up at the beginning of this post. And you’d be right.
So here’s my point – that closing paragraph comes right at the end of a massive series of action scenes. There is so much going on that I dare you not to be as exhausted as the main character.
As you can tell if you go back and re-read that paragraph, our character is still essentially up in the air when the book ends.
Many authors would have the character get out of the plane, and add in another chapter to tie things up. As a reader (even though I’ve read this book many, many times) I still expect that to happen.
It doesn’t though. Dick Francis leaves us not quite grounded … and it’s the right decision.
He’s given us enough for us to finish the story in our heads.
I love being left with that very vivid image of Tom Wells shrugging his arms into his old sheepskin jacket and beginning to run across the grass.
(also, I think this would make an amazing jumping-off point for a Book Two to follow this one … if only …)
What do you think of Flying Finish? I’d love to know!
P.S. In looking waaay back at my last re-read post, I see I was going to start the Sid Halley books next. I didn’t. I’ve decided to move along with the stand-alones for now. That means Blood Sport is next. See you then!