ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 32 Email to Friend   Printable Version


The Bookworm Critique
By Lee Baldwin
Published by
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this bookThere is something - a few somethings, perhaps - about motor racing and Formula One in particular that makes it highly attractive to some novelists. First, motor sport is inherently exciting and dramatic. That's why we all like it so much, and why we all stare uncomprehendingly at those that don't share the passion. It also has strong connotations with all sorts of fun stuff like glamour, bravery, power, and money - the kind of things you want if you are planning to weave a tale of high drama. In short, the very nature of motor racing writes half of the story on its own.

Herein also lies the problem. The 'real life' nature of racing is a large part of it's appeal - I doubt that even the most exciting fictional racing story would distract Formula One fans from this years three-and-a-half (taking Barrichello's 'number 1a' status at Ferrari into account) way battle for the championship. Efforts on behalf of the author to counter this by introducing additional elements to the story can also be dangerous, because they risk getting their racing audience off-side by not remaining true to the sport. This problem is evident in 'Formula One for Murder'.

Before going much further, an important distinction must be made. This is not a racing novel per se, but a murder mystery story placed within a Formula One setting. I should also point out here that I don't read a lot of murder mystery stuff, and that if this book was reviewed by somebody who approached it from that perspective rather than a motor sport one, it may have been received differently. Nevertheless, this is a forum for motor racing books, it's read by motor racing fans, and so it is in these terms that the book has been evaluated.

The story follows Trevor Heller, a Formula One driver with the British Spitfire team. Heller's teammate, Alan Price, is leading the world championship when he is fatally injured in a mysterious accident at Spa. From there, the story develops into a saga of billionaire gambling rings, team politics, and high-tech plastics (along with the usual betrayal, intrigue, assassination attempts and the like), as Heller tries to get to the bottom of Price's crash, and deal with a myriad of threats against his own well-being in the process.

While the author has obviously done some research into Formula One, there is much that suggests that he is not particularly empathetic toward it. This is clear before the story itself has even started, when the frontispiece opens by describing Formula One as a 'billion-dollar blood sport' - perhaps not the best way to endear oneself toward a motorsport audience. Throughout the book, there are little passages that suggest that while Baldwin might have read up on Formula One prior to writing about it, he still does not really understand it.

A lot of these little goof-ups would probably slip by a non-motorsport reader unnoticed, but to me they damaged the credibility of the racing sections, and thus proved detrimental to the rest of the book. For example, at the end of the Belgian Grand Prix we have Heller finish second in the race and pull into his pit garage, where the car is set upon by an army of mechanics. In reality, Heller would have had to pull into parc ferme, and if a mechanic had so much as brushed some dust off the rear wing before the car had been through scrutineering the driver would have been disqualified on the spot. On another occasion, we read:

"Mounted high on one wall as though defying gravity was Alan's old Ralt Formula 3000 car. Its polished body gleamed dark green in the spotlights. Trevor stared hard at the number 28 in a white circle. Crystal caught his gaze and looked up. 'That is the car,' Trevor said in a low voice, 'in which Alan learned that he could be a champion. He took the F3 crown that year'" (p. 109).

If the driver was allowed to run a F3000 car in an F3 championship, I'm not surprised that he took the title, what with the extra 200 or so horsepower he would have had at his disposal.

Eventually, even little trivial things, such as when the British Spitfire team used Goodwood as a test circuit, or the fact that the team manager was running around the pitlane in a NY Mets cap, began to annoy me. Throw in a few typographic and other errors (such as the misspelling of 'Benetton' on p.154), and you might begin to understand why I started to find this book a little frustrating.

We're not told what year the story is set in but there are a few clues that place it no later than the mid-1990s. The McLarens, for example, are running in red and white livery. The Australian Grand Prix is in Adelaide. Plus, there are a few on-track incidents that very obviously mirror some things that happened in real life. The nature of Alan Price's accident - the supreme driver that never made mistakes, the absence of any obvious cause for the crash - are highly reminiscent of a certain incident during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Similarly, the following passage will seem very familiar to anyone who remembers Adelaide that same year:

"The sullen Dane, whose McLaren now wore the number 1 reserved for the reigning World Champion, had stolen least season's final race by literally forcing Price from the track in Australia. The brush of their wheels at 175 mph might have spelled disaster for both, but Eriksen had been lucky enough to bring his car home. In spite of a fierce protest by the Spitfire team, the Dane's win had been upheld, the championship awarded. Whatever his penchant for questionable tactics, the impossibly lucky Eriksen had never been black-flagged for such a move" (p. 9).

I was not particularly captivated by the plot as a whole, though this could be as much to do with personal taste as with the quality of Baldwin's story. The book does seem a little under-drafted though, and a little more care with the editing would have tidied up some of the errors I mentioned earlier, and also helped improve the flow of the story. The latter particularly suffers from the author's tendency to rely heavily upon adjectives to add spice to his writing, resulting in a book that reads rather awkwardly.

In fairness to the author, there are a few online reviews from people that have purchased the book, and most of them seemed to really like it. It's possible that I'm on my own here. Interestingly though, almost of them also commented that they were mystery fans who 'didn't know anything about Formula One', which may at least suggest that, as a murder mystery, there's not much wrong with 'Formula One For Murder'. I was a little worried by a couple of people who also mentioned that they 'learnt a lot about Formula One from this book' though, because this is a far from ideal introduction to the sport.

The element of taste plays a greater part in determining the appeal of a fictional work than it does for the other kinds of books that are normally reviewed at Atlas F1, so ultimately you guys have to make up your own minds. Here's an except from one of the racing scenes to help you along:

"Screaming in close formation down the main straight, just a few yards behind the McLaren's rear wing at 195 miles per hour, the cars again entered the blistering right-hand turn one, Heller's car cornering flat-out, in balance, tires on the hazy, overheated edge of grip. Abruptly, the wheel in Heller's gloved hands gave a violent wrench and the car whipped around and launched itself from the pavement. Stands packed with startled faces telescoped madly at his astonished eyes. The nose dug in, wrenching the car viciously in a thick curtain of obscuring dust. The howling machine jolted free of the ground and glanced off a barrier of painted tires. Flinging wing and body fragments in all directions, the car flipped and skidded wildly, and slammed crookedly into a steel barrier with a splintering crunch.'

'Heller's shocked awareness of the savage flight had been totally silent. The first sound that registered in his numbed brain was the staccato rain of gravel falling on his helmet. Next instant, his own severed wheel rebounded from the barrier close by with an angry thwack. Puzzled, he looked around for another car, but he was alone. Dazedly, he set himself in motion, killing the ignition and clumsily unsnapping his safety harness. Thankfully, he did not smell gasoline" (p. 79).

This novel is only available as an e-book, and must be downloaded directly from Downloads cost USD $4.00.

Mark Glendenning© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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