Derby Day, by D.J. Taylor

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

Full Disclosure: I attended the 1984 Derby on Epsom Downs and the spectacle remains the greatest sporting event that I have personally witnessed. There were more than 250,000 people spread across the Downs (much of it is a public area open to all so there is no official attendance total), the ladies’ hats in the walking ring area were reward enough in themselves (no ugly fascinators in that era) and the race itself is permanently etched in my memory. Two furlongs from the wire, the even-money favorite, El Gran Senor, and a longshot, Secreto, hooked up and drew away from the pack of about 20 horses in a scene that could have come straight from a Stubbs work of art.

That duel supplied my personal connection to the race — both El Gran Senor and Secreto were offspring of the incredible Northern Dancer, the Canadian-bred stud who many in this country believe is the nation’s greatest athlete of all time despite his four-legged status. My seatmate in the grandstand had an even closer connection. He was a Yorkshire publican who had taken the day off for his annual “holiday” and journeyed to Epsom for the race. And he had bet £20 on Secreto (I forget whether the odds were 12/1 or 20/1, but they were long). I don’t think I have ever seen a happier racetracker when the photo was posted showing Secreto had won by a short head and he had won hundreds of pounds — I was treated to two pints of bitter, simply for being a seatmate with a “connection” to the sire of “his” winner.

I indulge in that lengthy personal introduction to illustrate the pervasive nature of the Derby that lasts to this day. Okay, not every Brit is a horse-racing fan, but one day a year a very high percentage are. An amazing number make the journey to Epsom Downs and every one of them has a personal “stake” in the outcome.

Given my unforgettable Day at the Derby, is it any wonder that I approached D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day with much anticipation? True, the Derby Day of the title takes place in the mid-1800s, a century-and-a-half before my excursion. While a lot has changed in those years, the horse-racing business has some constants — everyone at Epsom then and now has a stake in the outcome and, for some, that stake is big enough to provoke every possible kind of outrage up to, and including, murder.

While this is his first novel that I have read, Taylor has a well-established reputation. His speciality is Victorian mystery — one of his previous books is actually titled Kept, A Victorian Mystery and the front cover strap on this one proclaims it “A Victorian Mystery”. I’d argue that is somewhat misleading: there is not a lot of mystery to the book, but every one of its 404 pages is loaded with “intrigue” (I know, “A Victorian Intrigue” hardly seems an adequate promotional label).

The author wastes no time in introducing the reader to the intrigue. In the opening pages, two small-time, pub-based bookies, Mulligan and McIvor, are sharing pots of ale in Clipstone Court and developing a betting scheme around the Derby that will be contested a few months down the road. First, we have the hatching of the plot, with Mulligan carefully composing a handbill come-on to attract interest:

‘Here we are then. A widowed lady, relict of a gentleman long esteemed in some of the highest sporting establishments in the land, is in possession of information pertaining to this year’s Derby race, which she will gladly divulge in exchange for the sum of one half-crown, to be remitted to Mrs Faraday, Post Office, Drury Lane, London W. Reads well, don’t it?’

‘I should say it does,’ said Mr McIvor, who had been very impressed by the word ‘pertaining’. ‘But what do we do when folks start sending their money in?’

The hook having been baited, a few paragraphs later we are introduced to the racehorse who is at the centre of Derby Day, “that horse from Lincolnshire”:

Seeing from the look on McIvor’s face that he had never heard of any horse in Lincolnshire, he [Mullligan] went on:

‘Tiberius. Mr Davenant’s horse. The one that ran five furlongs in a minute and five on Newmarket Heath last spring, and that Joey Bailey would have rode in the Ascot New Stakes if he hadn’t broke ‘is collar-bone the week before. Was a feller talking of him no-end in Post and Paddock the other month. I remarked it at the time. Mr Newcome is already offering tens on him, and nobody knowing whether he’s to run or no.’

If Mulligan and McIvor are bottom-feeders when it comes to exploiting the opportunities of the Derby, Mr Happerton occupies the other end of the spectrum. The reader first meets him when he shows up at a lunch where Mrs Venables is entertaining Rebecca Gresham, the daughter of an aging well-connected barrister with a house in Belgravia:

‘Here,’ he said, reaching into a canvas bag that had accompanied him into Mrs Venables’ drawing room. ‘Tell me what you think of this.’

It was a watercolour picture, perhaps eighteen inches square and framed behind glass, of a lithe black horse cropping the grass of what might have been Newmarket Heath.

‘What is it?’

‘That is Tiberius.’ For the first time in their conversation, Mr Happerton became thoroughly animated. ‘Won the Biennial Stakes at Bath only the other day. It was in all the newspapers. Though not the kind of newspapers you read I daresay, Bec— Miss Gresham.’

‘I never saw a copy of Bell’s Life, Mr Happerton.’

‘Eh? No, I don’t suppose you did. Well, you may take it from me, Miss Gresham, that Tiberius is the coming thing. There are men who would pay five thousand to have him running under their name.’

‘And you are one of them, Mr Happerton?’

Indeed he is. Not only that, he is aware that the current owner, Mr Davenant, has debts all over and he has been quietly buying up the notes so that he can force Davenant into bankruptcy and acquire the horse. The problem is, Happerton is running out of capital — marriage to Miss Gresham would provide potential access to her father’s wealth so he could complete his scheme.

Having sketched the top and bottom representatives of the cast of scoundrels looking at the Derby as an opportunity, let me assure you that there are a host more in the novel — jewel thieves, ne’er-do-well hangers-on, overweight jockeys, an honest squire, a confused governess and, yes, murderers — will all be introduced. If Derby Day was a wedding cake, it would be seven or eight layers and I’ve noted only minor features of the top and bottom ones. In fact, if there is a problem with the novel it is that Taylor develops so many sub-plots that the latter part of the book becomes a literary juggling act in keeping them all in the air and eventually bringing them to resolution. Then again, this is a Victorian novel, so that comes with the turf (pun intended).

I thoroughly enjoyed Derby Day. The Booker longlist always seems to have an extended historical novel on it — while this is no Wolf Hall, the 2009 winner, I found it to be a legitimate representative of the genre (and better than Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I, another Victorian novel I rather liked which did not make the longlist). Undoubtedly, my affection for horse-racing novels and personal memories of my wonderful day at Epsom influenced my enjoyment, so keep that in mind if you are contemplating the book.

Derby Day will make my shortlist and I suspect the jury’s as well, although that is more a reflection of the weakness of other books on the longlist than the worth of this one. As much as I enjoyed it, the novel does not deserve to win the Prize — it is more rewarding entertainment than a strong literary novel.

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35 Responses to “Derby Day, by D.J. Taylor”

  1. RickP Says:

    I haven’t read this one yet. Sometimes my choices relate to how easy a book is to obtain.

    I’ve now read 4 of the 13. In total, I expect to read 10 or 11 and definitely the full shortlist. While I agree that the list has more representation from genres not associated with Booker, I’ve not yet seen this as a weak field.

    If I look at last year, I loved the Galgut and also really liked the Jacobson (much more than you did). I liked the Mitchell more than most and also had great affection for Skippy Dies. I thought of some of the others as mildly positive. I did not like Room and truly hated Parrot and Olivier.

    this year, I absolutely love the Barnes novel. It will be a crime if it doesn’t make the shortlist. I liked Jamrach’s Menagerie a lot though wouldn’t be devastated if it missed the short list. I admit Sisters Brothers was a bit light but I liked it. It’s on a par with Skippy Dies for me in that I enjoyed it but had a few issues. I did not like Snowdrops at all. Thus far I think the list has been okay particularly with the Barnes being a real treasure.

    P.S. There’s something on the site blocking the visibility of my comment so I’m likely making a lot of grammatical errors. Sorry.

  2. RickP Says:

    I’d be grateful if you could tell me how you acquired thius book in Canada. I can’t get it on Amazon or Indigo and The Book Depository continues to list it as unavailable.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick P: I’ve just finished number 11 of 13 (although I have only posted reviews on eight). I’ve briefly scanned the other two and am fairly certain I won’t like them (in fact, I’ve arranged for a guest review on one of them since I am sure I wouldn’t be fair to author). I can construct a reasonable shortlist — undoubtedly topped by the Barnes — but the bottom half is woefully weak. Two, perhaps three, of the four you have read would be on my shortlist, so I’d say you have been reading some of the better books. Once I have finished the reviews, I’ll offer some thoughts.

    Here’s a short summary of the ordering issue in North America. Now that Amazon is promoting Kindle, when they buy Kindle rights in North America the Book Depository (which they recently purchased, although this practice was started before that) blocks sales to North America. (I can only presume this terrible restraint of trade is a way of driving Kindle sales, which I find shameful.) However, if you go to AbeBooks.com (which is now owned, surprise, surprise, by Amazon) and scan down the title list to the Book Depository entry for the title, you will find your order will get processed, with free shipping. Who knows how long it will take them to close this loophole. If you click on the cover image in my reviews, it will take you to the AbeBooks page for the title — you have to find your own way to the BD option.

    If price is not a factor (or distaste for Amazon is strong enough), you can set up an account with a UK retailer like Waterstones or Foyles, but that means prohibitive shipping charges. Also, they tend to take longer to arrive than ones ordered by the AbeBooks route. Given the turmoil in the industry, I find this deliberate attempt to stop those of us in North America from getting physical books most objectionable.

    • Colette Jones Says:

      I know you hate amazon, Kevin, and I am not a fan either, but the promotion of the Kindle had nothing to do with The Book Depository’s decision to stop selling UK books to North American purchasers. Once amazon purchased BD that could have been a factor, but not before. It corresponded to BD opening US distribution centres. They were probably losing money on their free worldwide shipping.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Sorry, Colette, I think you are wrong. Yes, the opening of the U.S. distribution centers was probably a factor in that it provided Amazon (and U.S. publishers) with leverage. The shutdown on sales to NA coincided with the arrival of Kindle sales — you can still buy Kindle copies when you cannot buy books. I have no problem getting books from the BD when there is no Kindle version available in NA, which would seem to indicate a connection.

        The great thing in Canada was that for about eight months, Amazon wouldn’t let us buy either. Due to demand in the U.S., they halted Kindle sales in Canada — but did not remove the BD restrictions.

        Losing money on free shipping was definitely not a factor, at least so far. As noted in the comment (and on my Visa bills) the BD version of “free shipping” is still very much available when orders are placed through AbeBooks. And all my books come from the UK warehouse via British and Canada Post.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    After rereading it, let me clarify my previous comment. In referring to the bottom half of the list I should have said “woefully weak by my Booker standards”. The bottom seven aren’t dreadful (and I can actually see for most of them why a few readers might quite like them), they just is nothing very special about them which is what I do expect from a good longlist book.

  5. RickP Says:

    Thanks for the AbeBooks loophole, Kevin. I just successfully ordered from The Book Depository via this indirect route.

    A couple of weeks ago, I was able to order the Barry directly via the Book Depository. I guess Kindle rights weren’t yet acquired inr the U.S.

    It would be nice if the Book Depository had listed the book as unavailable for shipment to my country rather than just unavailable.

    Thanks again

    • Colette Jones Says:

      I really don’t think the BD phenomenon is Kindle related and your example shows that it probably isn’t. On Canaan’s Side was available for Kindle on 22nd July 2011 in both the UK and US. It was published in hardback in the UK 4th August 2011 and won’t be published in the US until September.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Actually, I think Rick got lucky with On Canaan’s Side. I just checked the BD and the UK version of the novel shows up as “notify me” and is not available (although I could pre-order the NA version). There have been other examples this summer where books were available for a few days before the block went up.

        And it is understandable that Waterstones (and Foyles) would ship books — they are Amazon competitors.

        • Colette Jones Says:

          But Amazon UK will sell you the books, right? And BD was still an Amazon competitor when they stopped shipping some of the books.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: Colette raised a point in her earlier response that I want to expand on — she is right that Amazon is not totally to blame, although they are certainly involved.

    The problems with ordering through the BD are related to their opening of US distribution centres. Whereas the BD previously could simply ignore US publishers, now they need them as suppliers. So when these publishers purchase American rights (The Stranger’s Child is a current example) they can use that leverage to have the BD shut down NA access to the physical book not yet released in NA — it is still available through Amazon on Kindle. A book where NA physical book rights have not been sold (The Last 100 Days is a current example) is available from the BD.

    AbeBooks can get around this because they are not a distributor — their business relationship is with booksellers, not publishers. And they are Canadian, so somewhat outside both UK and US loops.

  7. Paolo Says:

    Interesting thread. I wonder why, if you what you say about Amazon is true, why Indigo don’t stock Derby Day. Is it because they don’t think there will be enough interest or because they are pursuing a similar tactic with the Kobo?

  8. Guy Savage Says:

    I am not a fan of historical fiction. Neither am I a fan of horse racing, so it seems odd that I’m interested in this.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Guy: Perhaps it is the very well-written review? :-) You don’t have to be a fan of horse-racing or know anything about it — Taylor just uses it, conveniently, as the vehicle that attracts the band of scoundrels in the book. It does have the advantage of being classless enough that everyone can take a shot at being corrupt with it.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Paolo: Having just searched around, I can’t explain the Derby Day phenomenon at all. Neither Indigo nor Amazon lists it, with no indication of a future NA publication date. No Kindle or Kobo edition is available. And the Book Depository won’t sell it to you in Canada. (You can get to a UK version through the AbeBooks route.)

    It is speculation on my part, but I would guess Taylor’s agent is still in the business of selling NA rights (both physical and electronic) — he has been published here before, but does not seem to have a regular publisher. Alas, that doesn’t explain why the BD won’t sell it to us, unless the likely NA buyer has asked them to block sales while details are being worked out.

    • Paolo Says:

      Thanks for the tip. I have put in an order for both Derby Day and for the Testament of Jessie Lamb both of which are inexplicably unavailable in Canada through that method.

      I’ve emailed someone at Indigo and someone at Random House to ask why they’re not available and so far I’ve had no answers but if I do hear anything I’ll let you know.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Glad you found them, Paolo. I am sure North American versions will be published and available eventually. Part of the problem with keeping up with the Booker is that many listed novels just are not available here yet.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have an unread DJ Taylor already (At the Chime of a City Clock) and I’m not in the market for another until I’ve at least read that.

    Even were I though, it sounds a fine crime novel but in what’s becoming a theme with my comments on Booker reviews this year it doesn’t sound remotely literary.

    Not all books should be literary and I love many which aren’t. That doesn’t change the fact that the Booker should be. A most peculiar year.

    Anyway, thanks for the review Kevin. Clearly a competent and enjoyable novel that’s entertaining and particularly fun for those with an interest in horses. Also though yet another odd inclusion on the list.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I am glad that I read Derby Day and I can understand why Taylor has devoted fans. Having said that, I won’t be rushing out to buy another of his works. And I wouldn’t even hazard a guess on why the jury chose to put it on the longlist.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I expect to enjoy the one I bought (obviously I guess or I wouldn’t have bought it). I’m saving it for when I want a bit of light distraction. This review suggests to me both that I’m right to have invested in a Taylor novel and that I’m right to have it in mind for that purpose and not for a time when I want something more serious to engage with.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’d say you have the right attitude — the writing is quite good and both character and plot development are interesting. This one wasn’t just entertaining — there was enough challenge to it to keep the mind engaged without being too serious. As I said in a comment on Gillespie and I, one or two Victorian novels a year would be my limit, but when they are well done they do have some appeal.

  14. Mary Gilbert Says:

    I think `pastiche’ would be a slightly unfair way to describe Taylor’s novels but he certainly seems to be enjoying working his way through various genres and eras. I’ve got one called Ask Alice which haven’t read yet which is set in the world of 1930′s house parties. I read Kept and enjoyed it but thought the plot unravelled rather feebly towards the end and to be honest I can hardly remember anything about it now. I wonder if Derby Day is similar – fun to read but not leaving a lasting impression. Perhaps that’s one of the problems of the Booker longlist it’s a bit light. I did enjoy his superb biography of George Orwell though.
    Apropos of Kindles. A friend showed me hers and I thought it a dull piece of heavy plastic. I really missed the sensation of knowing where I am physically with a novel – the 10% read bar seemed no substitute for the weight of a real book and the ability to judge by eye and touch how much there is to read before the end of the chapter – or the end of the book.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Thanks for that information on Taylor — I’ll admit that he is an author who has flown under the radar for me. I will remember Derby Day, but then there are not a lot of horse-racing novels for me to remember.

    I don’t own an e-reader and am not likely to get one, simply because I do all my reading in comfortable chairs in a wonderful home. I do know of several people for whom they are essential because they can no longer handle physical books. And certainly those with a long commute or who travel a lot love them. I’d say that means that overall that makes them a very good thing — more books are available to more readers.

  16. RickP Says:

    I finally got this from England and it’s next on my list. Kevin has made a good point on how short many of this year’s longlist books are. Derby Day suddenly seems like a long book.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: Like most Victorian “mysteries”, it reads quickly if you are enrolled in the book and you don’t really notice the length. If you aren’t, it probably drags along for you and might be best abandoned — the form is certainly not to eveyone’s taste.

  18. RickP Says:

    I think I’ll enjoy it. I would not usually consider it a long book. Now that I seem to be reading 250 page book after 250 page book of Booker nominees, it seems long relatively speaking. The short lengths seems to be more pronounced this year which I think you’ve pointed out.

  19. RickP Says:

    I enjoyed the hell out of this book. It’s not particularly literary but a is really strong story. The author had great command of the detail and wrote it in a very old style. It had a very Dickensian feel.

    I agree that it shouldn’t win the prize but on my shortlist without question. It’s probably #2 or #3 and close to On Canaan’s Side. Barnes still easily #1 as I think I’ve stated 100 timess. If I jkeep saying it then maybe Barnes will win the prize.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: I had much the same response. Yes, there were parts where it slowed down but the author quickly moved on to another theme and picked up interest. It is not my idea of a “Booker” book, but it was in my top six.

    And, to cheer you up, I know that you read the Booker before the Giller. Get ready — there are some very interesting, innovative books awaiting you. They aren’t perfect but they are challenging. Reading will soon be getting better. And I still have seven to go. :-)

  21. RickP Says:

    I’m reading both right now. I’m reading Half Blood Blues which about 100 pages in has exceeded my expectations.

    I will complete Booker shortlist (Pigeon English completes it). I just got my Giller shipment, Zentner, Bezmogis, Ondaatje and Johnston. I’m looking forward to it.

  22. David Says:

    I have just started to read Derby Day and have to say that the three annoying errors I have noticed in just the first few pages are spoiling my enjoyment of what initially promised to be a good read.

    In chapter 1, McIvor tells Mulligan that Dukes Delight floundered in the St Leger, as the horse “never came out of the ditch at the thirteenth”. The fact is that the St Leger is a flat race, so there wouldn’t have been a ditch, or a thirteenth (jump). A pretty fundamental error for a novel set within the sport of horse racing.

    Later in chapter 1, the two chancers devise an advertisement, boasting that they have the winner of “this year’s Derby”. However, this takes place in November, whereas the Derby is run in June: i.e. next year.

    And then a howler of an editing error in the 3rd chapter, with “Mr Happerton had heard of Messrs Rivington, but this did not make him like Mr Happerton any better.”

    I hope I don’t come across any more errors like these, but I’ll let you know if I do.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: As someone who knows a fair bit about horse racing (Mrs. KfC and I had a small stable for some years), I’ll predict that you are going to find more mistakes as the novel proceeds — Taylor doesn’t know the sport quite as well as he might. The St Leger error really is a howler.

    I’ll forgive him “this year’s Derby”. By November, that calendar year’s Derby is past history and next spring’s race is “this year”.

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