The Re-Read Project – Nerve

First line:

“Art Matthews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the centre of the parade ring at Dunstable races.”

(I think my final post in this series is just going to be a list of all the first lines of all the books, because they’re that good …)

OK, this is a bold statement, but I’m going to say it.

I think this might be my favourite Dick Francis book.

Why? Well there are two main reasons

Love interest

So, the love interests in Dick Francis books are generally likeable. They’re presented as level-headed, smart, attractive (of course) women. And, of course, there’s usually an obstacle in the way of them the main character winning the woman he loves … I mean, that’s normal, right?

For some reason, this storyline is just a bit more fully fleshed (to me). We truly see why Rob loves Joanna – it’s not an initial attraction of good looks – it’s a lifelong love. We also get to know Joanna a little more than some of the other love interests. We see how she lives.

Probably most importantly (for me, anyway), I understood and believed in the conflict keeping them apart. I could see how she’d be torn. And it was a tough one – nobody was right, nobody was wrong. In some of the other books when there’s competition between the main character and somebody else for the hand of the fair maiden, you just feel like telling her, “You might as well pick him – you’re going to end up with him anyway,” but in this book there’s as much uncertainty as I think it’s possible to have.

Now, onto the main reason I think this is a central book for readers of Dick Francis books:

The theme

To me, this book nails the theme that then runs through the rest of the entire slew of Dick Francis books. I mean, sure, there are mean, nasty villains, and there are the dangers inherent in horse-racing, and sometimes the character even does something else dangerous as a sideline, but that’s never what he’s scared of.

He’s always scared of himself. Of failing. Of not living up to his own internal expectations. Always. There’s a very in-depth examination of this during the Sid Halley series where, sure, the main character is afraid for his physical well-being, but – really – he’s afraid that he doesn’t have the internal fortitude to face his fear, and fight it, and overcome it.

Last month, in Dead Cert, we saw the main character having only minimal reservations about rushing in and confronting the bad guy. Mostly he was just brash, and sure of himself. The hesitation he did have was on behalf of other people – how would it hurt them? Dead Cert was still a great read, but it was simpler in that way.

Here, in Nerve, we start to get at the heart of what drives all Dick Francis characters. Losing their nerve is truly The. Worst. Thing. that could happen to one of these characters. We see this during Rob’s really, truly, very awful twelve hours where he contemplates a life of having lost his nerve.

We also see that the minute he’s sure he hasn’t lost it, and he has a course of action, he’s all good – even though everybody around him still thinks he’s a coward. Their opinion doesn’t matter.

This book truly sets up the classic internal tussle / struggle / battle that will be part of all of Dick Francis’s great stories going forward, and for that reason, I really have to consider it might be the best, or at least one of the most important of his stories.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Also, isn’t it interesting that, really, one strong theme can carry through so many books, yet each one feels fresh and different enough to be interesting?

Comments are welcome!

Next up: For Kicks

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