|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on December 28, 2019 at 1:30 PM|
As implied in my spoilerless introduction to Whip Hand, Dick Francis’ second Edgar-winning novel is a little light on mystery. We meet the main villain by chapter eight. There is some mild residual suspense in the secondary plots, and there is one big reveal where we learn that the Chief Steward, who had hired Sid to look into one of the mysteries, is himself the guilty party and responsible for a second set of thugs who beat Sid up. I had to reread several chapters in depth to get this because the first and second time through all of the authority figures in the plot were almost indistinguishable, and his reason for inciting, then attempting to quash, an investigation into his own crimes still doesn’t make sense to me. But the main suspense is man vs fear. Sid Halley’s one good arm is threatened by the sadistic Trevor Shammuck, and he is successfully blackmailed to at least temporarily let him continue his sabotage of a famous trainer’s horses. Sid then overcomes his fear, which is a morally satisfying ending, and then has to face the next step with Shammuck.
Since Dick Francis has chosen, again and again, to go with the plot point of sadism in his villains, it is legitimate to ask if he succeeds in this literary device. In some ways, adding sadism in a villain makes the novel seem more gritty and realistic, since many real-life criminals are sadistic. But for Francis (and potentially for other authors), does relying on sadism as a plot device paint the author into a corner from which there is no convincing escape?
Of course, in many books the sadism is added simply to goad the reader into wanting the villain dead, by the most gruesome way possible, and to feel the protagonist is justified in committing the murder. I do not really feel like this is a respectable (or skillful) thing for an author to try to accomplish, but it remains a popular ploy, used in at least one other Dick Francis novel and also by authors such as Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard. Dick Francis has also used the ploy of having a situation occur that kills the sadistic villain through circumstances that the detective isn’t responsible for – this can get unconvincing especially as it is repeated. The author could have his or her detective simply accumulate so much evidence that the villain is executed through legal means, or at least neutralized in prison, which modern authors have apparently decided isn’t convincing.
On rare occasions, the detective can end up sacrificing him- or herself knowing that they will be at the mercy of the villain, or his avengers, at least temporarily. I have seen this done effectively though usually against villains who are more ruthless than sadistic. What happens at the end of Whip Hand is this – Sid alerts the authorities to Shummuck and his criminal empire collapses (as well as his access to his few legitimate business interests), and arrest is possible though hasn’t happened yet. Shummuck confronts Sid to carry out his threat and destroy his remaining arm – but then relents in disgust because what he really wanted was for Sid to fear him and he realizes he will not get that. If you have read my other spoiler version summaries, you realize that this is the second time in ten years that an Edgar-winning novel has ended with a villain arbitrarily deciding he doesn’t feel like harming the detective who is in his power. To me, this is the writing equivalent of setting up a locked-room mystery, playing up the impossibility of the deed, and then saying, “oh, the door wasn’t locked.” Maybe authors, even award-winning ones, should resist the temptation of painting their heroes into the corner of sadism if their only solutions are something like this!
Categories: Edgar Winner Reviews (Spoilers)