Twice Shy

Twice Shy
Dick Francis
First published in the UK 1981, Michael Joseph
This edition 1982, Pan Books
ISBN: 0330269186
256 pages
Score 2/5

‘My affection for horses was so deep and went back so far that I couldn’t imagine life without them. they were a friendly foreign nation living in our land, letting their human neighbours tend them and feed them, accepting them as servants as much as masters. Fast, fascinating, essentially untamed, they were my landscape, my old shoes,the place to where my heart returned.’

‘Dick Francis’ says two things to me:

1. Horses (tedious – to me, at least, not to some – see above).
2. The Queen Mum (allegedly his biggest fan; not my demographic).

So, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Twice Shy. However, reading my way through the CWA top 100 is all about expanding my reading horizons, so I wasn’t about to fall at the first hurdle.

The book is in two parts, each narrated by one of the two Derry brothers, Jonathan and the much younger William. The two halves of the book are separated by 14 years.

In part one we meet Jonathan, a physics teacher in a London secondary school. He is bored in his job, and equally bored by his marriage to Sarah. His one release is shooting – he is a crack shot and former Olympic team member.

The story begins with a call from Sarah’s friends Peter and Donna. Donna has had a breakdown and has been arrested for abducting a baby, and Peter confides that he has an even bigger problem on his plate. He is a computer programmer and has recently developed some software to predict race winners. He has delivered the software to his client, but is now being threatened by a pair of thugs who are demanding copies of the tapes. He half-tricks Jonathan into taking the tapes off his hands, making Jonathan the new target for the thugs. Matters begin to escalate when they come to his home and threaten him with a pistol. From here the book becomes a turn-by-turn struggle between Jonathan and his adversaries.

Part two centres on the second brother William, much younger but now grown up and working as a racing manager for an American millionaire. It follows a similar thriller blueprint of twist following twist.

Francis was clearly an extremely competent thriller writer and can really pull off a scene. Take these early chapter endings…

‘”What,” I said slowly, has Donna done?”
“She went out shopping,” Sarah said, trying at last to speak clearly.
“And she stole… She stole…”
“Well, for heaven’s sake,” I said, “I know it’s bloody for them, but thousands of people shoplift. So why all this excessive drama?”
“You don’t listen,” Sarah shouted. “Why don’t you listen?”
“I -“
“She stole a baby.”


‘He wanted to check that the battery still had enough life in it.
It had.
When he raised the first spark, the rear half of the boat exploded.’

Textbook stuff. However, thinking them through, and being nit-picky, there is absolutely no reason for Donna to have stolen a baby. It’s just a dramatic way to introduce her husband Peter and the MacGuffin of the computer program. Equally, the explosion could just have easily (in fact, more easily) been a shooting or a road accident.

There are some great sections about getting the computer program to work and descriptions of its functionality, which I assume was cutting edge in 1981. We’ve come a long way to get to Angry Birds.

Ted typed YES and pressed ‘Enter’.

Also, for the thriller fan, there’s a sprinkling of gun talk:

‘The air-gun that I’d taken to school was little more than a toy and needed no licence or secure storage, but I also owned two Mauser 7.62s, an Enfield No. 4 7.62 and two Anschutz .22s around which all sorts of regulations bristled, and also an old Lee Enfield .303 dating back from my early days which was still as lethal as ever.’

So, a satisfying plot and all the makings of a good thriller. However, for me the book began to fall apart almost as soon as I met the characters.  Problematically, I found both Jonathan and the marginally more charming William self-important to the point where I just didn’t like them at all. Even their moments of self-reflection and doubt came across as false modesty. Perhaps they represented aspirational role models in 1981, but I hope not.

The tone is all very masculine, par for the course in a thriller, but there is an answering undercurrent of misogyny throughout the book. It fits the characters, and I don’t want to be guilty of projecting their thoughts onto the author, but it grates.

‘I’d once before tried living with someone: nearly a year with a cuddly blonde who wanted marriage and nestlings. I’d felt stifled and gone off to South America and behaved abominably, according to her parents.’

Women’s difficulties are strictly emotional and they have trouble coping with them.

‘Sarah cared for Donna with extreme tenderness and devotion and was rewarded with wan smiles at first and, gradually, low-toned speech. After that came hysterical tears, a brushing of hair, a tentative meal, a change of clothes, and a growth of invalid behaviour… Donna gave her the by now ultra-dependent smile she had developed over the past two days.’

Donna: Pull your bloody socks up! Luckily, she does:

‘When Donna found she was no longer indulged and pampered every waking minute she developed a pout in place of the invalid smile, and went home.’

Meanwhile, men face their difficulties head-on. Twice Shy explores what ordinary people – by which we mean men, of course – would do in thriller-type situations. Both Jonathan and William are mundane types, facing a foe who has taken the brakes off and is no longer playing by society’s rules. Of course, they are not quite ordinary. Neither of the brothers considers just giving in and they are prepared to go to considerable lengths. Francis does address this – arguing that the ability to deal with danger comes from necessity.

‘He was a far more powerful man than I would normally have thought of opposing, yet I was discovering that I had probably always thought of myself as being weaker than I was.’

(See what I mean about the self-importance?)

It’s striking how much of the tension is related to how Jonathan and later William fit their activities around their day jobs and other practicalities. For example, how – practically speaking – would you lock a thug in the cellar of your rented house, and how would you tidy up the wreckage of the struggle to get him in there, without losing your deposit?

However, their day jobs are of as much help as hindrance:

‘He seemed disappointed that I’d shown so little reaction to his dramatics but even in that dire moment it seemed second nature to use on him the techniques I’d unconsciously developed in the years of teaching: to deflate the defiance, to be bored by the super-ego, to kill off the triumphant cruelty by an appearance of indifference.’

Obviously, Jonathan’s shooting abilities come into play, but so too do his knowledge of physics and experience with rebellious teenagers. William’s contacts in the racing world as just as useful in part two.

So, a mixed reception for Twice Shy. Despite its gambling theme, it wasn’t off-puttingly horsey. As a thriller it works well (and as a techno-thriller its vintage adds interest). But, I found the narrators arrogant and basically unlikeable.

Final destination: Charity shop

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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7 Responses to Twice Shy

  1. What a fascinating review. I am a fan of Dick Francis but I don’t necessarily disagree with any of what you’ve said though it’s been a while since I read this particular book (and it wouldn’t make my top 100 crime books – there are others of his that I think are better examples of his genre).

    For me his books in general are a comfort read – you know pretty much what will happen all the way through and the heroes are all of a certain type – slightly superior-seeming but usually with some good reason (though this is a position I’ve come to relatively late in life as I meet so many people who act superior with no grounds whatsoever – at least Francis’ heroes are usually knowledgeable about their subjects and have some grounds for thinking themselves more intelligent than those around them). The writing is always serviceable at best – but I never heard him make any great claims to literary greatness. I’m not even vaugely interested in horses or racing but he does do a good job of creating interest in them and other things I normally wouldn’t care about (one of the books is all about the diamond industry, another about the art forgery world and there are many more topics I have become engrossed in for a time thanks to him). I don’t remember any of the books having hugely mysogynistic characters but as I said it’s been ages since I read this one so perhaps it was an aberration. There are several with very strong female characters in them though these are probably the later ones.


    • westwoodrich says:

      Thanks for your comment Bernadette.

      Interesting point about female protagonists. The women in this one were definitely damsels in distress, so I’d be fascinated to see how we handled them as lead characters.


  2. Maxine says:

    I am one of those people who regularly read Dick Francis’s latest annual outing, enjoying them very much. I probably read this and enjoyed it, therefore, but can’t remember a thing about it! I stopped reading him after 15 or so books when flatness (and silent coauthors?) came in. Your review is great, makes me smile reading those extracts and that typical thriller style as expositions rush in (grumpy teens) as the hero faces some peril or other (man with gun, etc). I too hate books about horses & have no interest in the royal family so I was surprised to like the earlier books as much as I did.


  3. Maxine says:

    PS in my first sentence, I mean “read” in the past tense, not the present.


    • westwoodrich says:

      🙂 I wondered how I was going to break the news.

      Thanks for your comment Maxine. I’m still having to approve them individually for some reason – I’ll check my settings again later.

      Interestingly, even the CWA list I am following implied this wasn’t Francis’s best.


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