I remember buying my first Dick Francis paperback. I was in Swane’s bookshop in downtown Sydney, an Aladdin’s Cave long since gone. I was twelve years old, in school uniform and feeling guilty and embarrassed about looking for books in the mainstream, grownup section of the shop.
I was a horsy girl, and until then had been satisfied with the efforts of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Mary Gervaise, Patricia Leitch and other books aimed at horsy teens. I was also a kid who read well beyond her age, and was a keen follower of the racing world, aided and abetted by my grandfather who’d put on bets for me at the Saturday races.
Pulling down Dead Cert (because the name sounded as if it were in the horse-racing genre), my eyes lit up. I all but salivated. This was just what I had been looking for!
I bought the book and promptly hid it. I read it only in private, worried that my mother would see me reading something aimed strictly at adults. I devoured it despite it not being the strongest murder mystery plot in the universe. It had been written by an ex-jockey (and I, being me, had a crush on one or two apprentice jockeys at the time, pretty boys they were too before age and wasting diets ravaged them) and I was delighted to think that a jockey could be so literate as to write a thriller novel like this one.
Dead Cert was Dick Francis’ first book, published in 1962, a few years after he had retired as a jockey. A week or two later, pocket money topped up and coins foraged from behind the sofa cushions, I headed back to Swane’s for more and bought Enquiry. The artwork on the cover was risqué so I had to cover it with clear plastic and put a sticker over the topless woman!
By the time I bought his most recent, High Stakes, a month later I’d told Mum what I was reading and she too got stuck into Dead Cert. From then on I happily and publicly collected all the Dick Francis books and to this day have the entire collection, in hardback and paperback. (See this resource here by a fellow Francis fan for a full list of novels and a synopsis of each.)
I was even lucky enough to meet Dick Francis years later at a book signing and have a brief conversation about writing while he scrawled on the flyleaf of his latest hardback for me. In the interim years Dick Francis had been a big influence on my own writing style – I spent my teen years writing truly awful horse racing novels that thankfully never saw the light of day. Not that the awfulness was Dick’s influence, that was entirely my own work.
Graham Lord in his unauthorised biography of Dick Francis (Dick Francis A Racing Life) asserts that the books were actually written by Dick’s wife, Mary, who was always recognised by Dick as doing much of the research on the books and ‘contributing to the writing process’. Dick left school at 15; Mary had degrees in French and English and worked for a publisher in her younger days. While this rumour was denied heartily by Dick’s publishers when the bio was released (and it’s since been confirmed by Dick’s son Felix that his parents co-authored the books), I suggest you make up your own mind. In fact, get yourself a copy of Lord’s book as it makes fascinating reading and his dissection of some of the prose and phrases familiar to Francis fans (i.e., “He sketched a farewell”) is priceless. You’ll find the book on eBay, Amazon, etc as it’s out of print.
Whether the author was Dick himself, Mary herself, or Mary putting into prose Dick’s plots and characters, the books have a consistent style and turn of phrase until Mary’s death and the first book released five years after that, Under Orders. For me, the character development is stronger too in the earlier books – that could be coloured by my teenage delight at reading grown-up thrillers!
Under Orders was eagerly snapped up by fans who thought that Dick, devastated at the loss of his beloved wife, had stopped writing for good. It features characters familiar to Dick Francis fans – private investigator Sid Halley and his family, who had featured in previous Francis novels. However, supporting character Rear Admiral Charles Rowland behaves very much out of character, dropping the f-bomb in front of a woman; in the first Halley book (Odds Against, 1965) the very proper Admiral would not even say ‘damn’. The writing style itself is slightly different to earlier Francis books too. It’s subtle, but if you know your Francis well you are aware of it. Dick’s younger son Felix Francis is thanked for his contribution on the dedication page, and for this longtime Francis fan it’s clear he had a strong hand in writing the book.
Since then Dick and Felix, a former school teacher and Dick’s manager, have co-authored four books: Dead Heat, Silks, Even Money and Crossfire. By the time Crossfire was published the writing style of the duo was more akin to classic Dick Francis books but the books for me weren’t in the league of the Francis classics from the early days. Dead Heat is the one I most enjoyed from these four, with a chef as the lead character, followed by Even Money (the first time I’d empathised with a bookmaker!). They are still enjoyable, but my test of a book is how soon I re-read it, and I haven’t re-read any of these four yet. The voice is slightly different, too. As with Under Orders, it’s subtle, but it’s there; some sentences appear beleaguered if not stilted.
Dick Francis died at the age of 89 two years ago today at the time of writing this post, leaving a legacy of fast-paced novels, villains with improbable names and plots both strong and on the weak side; well-researched thrillers that were set not only deeply in the racing world but on the fringes, with horses in the foreground or sometimes well hidden in the background.
What would happen now? Was Crossfire the last Dick Francis ever?
No. Felix has stepped up to the plate, releasing his first solo “Dick Francis novel” last year, Gamble.
Gamble doesn’t enjoy the tightest plot in the world, and the character development is a little on the thin side, conversation between the characters stilted on occasion. I’d figured out the hero’s girlfriend was ill long before he did. When Our Hero Nicholas misses a vital clue near the end of the book I felt an urge to shout out a pantomime-ish “He’s behind you!”. Or words to that effect. I was disappointed, overall.
Reading Felix’s first solo effort, I’m made aware that any “Dick Francis” book of the past certainly included the man himself in plot development to say the least, if not character development. Dick as a jockey with little education may have heavily relied on his wife or son to turn his ideas and rough drafts into readable reality; every Dick Francis novel a true collaboration. There’s something a little lacking in Gamble, but I’m curious to see if the next Felix Francis is an improvement. One would expect Felix to put his own stamp and voice on the brand; hopefully the confidence gained from acceptance of his first solo effort will see the next novel rollicking along like the 3.30 at Newmarket.
According to the official website the next novel features a tv racing presenter as the lead character and will be published later this year. Expect a review of it here.