Formula One, Bob Judd

Avon, 1989, 374 pages, C$4.95$ mmpb, ISBN 0-380-71014-5

Novels being works of imagination, it’s surprising to find out that some readers devour them to learn things. Why not grab a non-fiction book instead? Authors are free to imagine whatever they want in any given context: why should any reader trust the author?

This is in many ways a false argument. Compare sitting down for a few hours with a quantum mechanic textbook, or a Greg Egan hard-SF novel. The choice is pretty easy to make. Fiction involves the reader. Sure, it’s less rigorous, but the basic elements still come through, especially when dealing with non-tangible subjects: someone who wants to know about the camaraderie and competition between fighter pilots will more easily grasp it reading a Stephen Coonts novel than a non-fiction account.

As for trust, it has a lot to do with an undefinable authenticity in the text itself, added to the author’s credentials. While Arthur Hailey has never been an airport or hotel manager, his novels Airport and Hotel (among other “educative” thrillers) have mesmerized whole beachfuls of readers. Hailey has acquired a reputation for research; Coonts is a former aircraft pilot. Both are known for getting their facts right.

Which brings us to Bob Judd, who brings us in turn in the fast-paced world of Formula One racing for his debut thriller Formula One. With fast cars, loose women, big money and high stakes, the world of Grand Prix racing seems a natural background for any thriller. Formula One takes full advantage of its setting.

Ace Formula One driver Forrest Evers has problems. After three disastrous races, he has abandoned racing. Now, in the opening pages of the novel, he watches as the second driver of his team kills himself in a stupid 200mph accident. Soon afterward, Evers is back behind the wheel with only one idea: Find out who killed his friend and who’s trying to kill him again.

Many thrillers boast intriguing promises but fail on delivery. Not so here. Judd writes like a racer going for the pole position. Evers’ first-person narration is immediately gripping and carries the novel through like few thrillers read recently.

Even better, we readers get a first-class ticket to the world of F1 racing. The jargon, the mechanics, the shady dealings, the political nature of the game are all explained in painless terms. Best of all, Formula One stays with its subject most of the time. It’s not a coincidence if the novel falters around the three-quarter mark, where the protagonist stops being a driver and behaves more like an amateur secret agent. Soon afterward, Evers and the novel are back where they belong—behind the wheel. The climax is memorably written.

What’s more, you will enjoy learning about F1 racing here. The details are well-mixed with the action, and seldom feel like exposition lumps. Judd acquires his credibility not by past novels or by an author blurb, but by being very, very good at what he does. It’s a challenge to pull off a first-person narration by someone who’s obviously in a technical field, but Judd achieves it magnificently.

There’s plenty to like in Formula One: The writing is delicious, the protagonist is likable, the gallery of supporting characters is sharply drawn, the technical details are right and the plot moves. You’re unlikely to read a better thriller soon.

[July 1998: Just discovered that Formula One is the first of four (so far) Forrest Evers thrillers. I’m unsure to read further, lest inferior sequels taint my memories of the original.]

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