Cover of the first edition of "Whip Hand"

image: Wikipedia

After leaving the RAF following World War 2, Dick Francis became a leading jockey. Winner of over 350 races, and champion jockey in the 1953-4 season, he was riding Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Loch, to victory in the 1956 Grand National when the horse inexplicably stumbled with 40 yards to the finish.

Francis retired from racing, becoming a journalist and author. A best selling author in fact – over 40 of his novels became international best sellers. But we’re really concerned here with Odds Against, which introduced the character of Sid Halley. Like Francis, a former jump jockey, Halley’s retirement is forced after a racing accident sees his hand crushed – and eventually, it’s amputated. His father-in-law (well, ex father-in-law) suggests he take up detective work. Not keen, he’s invited to his father-in-law’s house for a weekend and … let’s just say things start from there.

Now I have to be honest here. This is, without doubt, my favourite of the detective shows that I’ve covered so far. It isn’t, sadly, such a great contender for the British Columbo – he’s not a policeman, for a start – but it’s a worthwhile series.

And it wasn’t just me that thought so – it inspired Dick Francis to write a second Sid Halley book. The original cover features Mike Gwilym, who played Halley on screen, and the book is dedicated to him. You can see why on screen – Gwilym is utterly convincing as Halley, and plays the part exceptionally well. Sadly, they only made six episodes, and it’s possible to see why – a considerable amount of money was spent on sets, animals, extras; there’s even a private plane at one point.

The first episode is a condensed adaptation of Odds Against, and it’s extremely well done. The next five episodes were written especially for the series (given that there was only one Halley book in existence at the time, that’s understandable). Episodes 2-6 don’t canter along (if you’ll pardon the pun) at so great a pace, but they’re not pedestrian. If you enjoyed The Sweeney, you’ll like this one, too.

You can watch the first three episodes on YouTube, or buy the whole thing on Amazon UK or Amazon US.

There are two notable guest appearances to watch for in the series: one is the genuine East End gangster and known Kray Twins associate John Bindon, and the second is none other than three-times Grand National winner Red Rum, playing the horse “Leapy Lad”.

Right-ho then. The all-important “Columbo index” then. As usual, these are completely and utterly subjective, personal, not suitable for minors, do not fold bend spindle or mutilate or wash with dark colours, non-transferrable and have no cash value. Please feel free to disagree with them in the comments.

Ahead of the game: nope, not really. OK, Sid’s no dummy, but he’s no Columbo. That said, the little trap at the end of the first episode is worth its weight in gold. Score: 5/10

Car: a white one, with a red interior, if I remember right. Nothing to write home about, maybe a little sporty. Forgettable, you know what I mean? Perfect for surveillance work, but not a character in its own right. Score: 2/10

Catchphrases and general ambience: well, late 70s UK. Horses. Racetracks. Bits of countryside, town, some exquisitely beige hotels. But his sidekick Chico gets all the best lines. Score: 5/10

Investigative style: variable. Sometimes, Sid’s under suspicion and has to clear his name, film noir-style. Sometimes, his client asks him for specific things. And sometimes he’s just threatened by general thuggery and is acting from self-preservation. But there are a couple of “how’s-he-gonna-solve-it” style episodes, so they have to get points for that. Score: 6/10

Personality: Halley is someone who won’t let go. Not now, not ever. He’s like a dog with a bone. In that respect, he’s very like Columbo. However in others, he couldn’t be more different – a tendency towards violence and occasional breaking-and-entering in the service of good is tempered by a general inability to let the bad guys win, even if they are his own clients… Score: 6/10

Sidekick: Mick Ford as Chico Barnes is really a great character. A judo teacher who’s not afraid of getting on the wrong side of the law in a good cause, he’s not only handy in a fight but quick on the uptake too. But in a Columbo context, he’s not Dog. Score: 4/10

Violence: plenty. Several fights every episode, the occasional torture scene (no, that’s not a joke), and a potential explosion. Plenty to keep you on the edge of your seat. And plenty to rule it out from that coveted Sunday afternoon post-dinner Columbo spot. Sorry. Score: 2/10

Well, sad to relate, that’s a Columbo index of just 30 points. This puts “The Dick Francis Thriller: The Racing Game” (a preposterously long title that I shan’t use again) into fourth place:

  1. Inspector Morse – 48 points
  2. Lovejoy – 39 points
  3. Dixon of Dock Green – 34 points
  4. The Racing Game – 30 points
  5. Bergerac / The Sweeney – 29 points

To be honest, I didn’t expect The Racing Game to be top of the list. But it’s not particularly well known, and I personally think it’s excellent. I’m still mystified why there was never a second series, but there you are. Some things, even Sid Halley can’t solve. Until next time, when we’ll be meeting a detective who solves his own murder, adeus.