As I have said elsewhere, while most popular fiction is ephemeral, mystery writers deal in the important things: logic, epistemology, judgment, atonement, justice, and redemption. They also deal with courage.
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There are people who don't believe Shakespeare wrote the plays and the sonnets that we call his; mostly because they are 'too elevated,' and Willie the Shake, poor dear, wasn't quite a gent. There are people who are convinced on similar grounds that Dick Francis's wife polishes his rough diamonds. I doubt it. The champion jockey turned best-selling crime writer knows too much: the pressures of courage, and the real feel of fear, which is something not described by purple prose, but a looseness at the back of the knees and a sudden inability to think connected thoughts.
Proof is not the most recent, nor is it perhaps the best, of Francis's thrillers. It has the usual tight plotting and breakneck pace. It has the usual Franciscan tropes of loss, greed, and sudden, almost grotesque violence. It may not rank with 10 Lb. Penalty or To The Hilt or even some of the early works (Nerve comes very much to mind). But it is a first-rate thriller.
Like most of his mature works, it is not as confined to the racing world: it was with Banker, The Danger, and Proof that Francis first broke out into other worlds and settings for his heroes, even though the racing background persists and rightly persists. Like most of the recent work, the violence is toned down - somewhat. But Proof is certainly in some ways the most important and impressive work in a body of work that only the thoughtless dismiss as 'mere thrillers.'
Francis of all men knows that physical courage is universally admired. He knows, too, that for whatever adrenal reason, it can vanish unexpectedly, and that for whatever adrenal reason, some men simply feel no fear, ever. It was in Proof that Francis really first confronted the more important types of courage.
It is nothing new for a Francis hero to have trouble getting the girl. But with Tony Beach, the protagonist of Proof, Francis begins to engage fully in the exploration of loss and loneliness: Beach is a widower.
He is also an unadventurous man, a wine merchant from a family of gallant officers who were pillars of the Turf; a man convinced of his own physical cowardice, at least where horses are concerned.
And while the adventures that befall him are top-notch thriller material, I have taken Proof as my text because of its importance as a meditation on courage. 'Two AM courage,' Bonaparte called it; and while I am no fan of his, he also observed that in war, 'The moral is to the physical as three is to one.' The journey of Tony Beach through the darkness of the human psyche and his own bogeys is an heroic quest after moral courage, which so far outshines mere physical bluff as to be incomparable. As Alan Breck Stewart – in Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal Kidnapped - tells young David Balfour, it is the man who is afraid and goes forward anyway who is the true hero.
And when what is involved is a matter of principle, when the fear is more than the nausea and coldly sweating palms of bodily danger, what is at stake is moral courage, the highest of all material virtues.
Emerging from his father's soldierly shadow, Tony Beach does not merely solve a mystery. He discovers himself. He discovers that courage is found, not beforehand, but in the very heat and heart of battle.
You may read and revel in Proof as a superbly plotted thriller if you like. I commend it to new Francis fans, old Francis fans who overlooked it, and people who never contemplated reading Dick Francis because of something else. As an examination of the nature of sheer guts, this little potboiler ranks with the best of Joseph Conrad. Read it and see.