Created by Dick Francis
“I was never particularly keen on my job before the day I got shot and nearly lost it, along with my life. But the .38 slug of lead that made a pepper shaker out of my intestines left me with fire in my belly in more ways than one.”
— Odds Against (1995)
People who dismiss Dick Francis from the ranks of the hard-boiled fraternity? They oughtta be horsewhipped.
His heroes are some of the toughest–and yet most human–guys to ever stick their noses where they don’t belong. And his heroes aren’t comic book tough guys who get shot or have the shit beaten out of them, then drink a bottle of rye and get up and walk away. No, when someone gets hurt in a Dick Francis novel, they get hurt. For a long time. Maybe forever.
One of the few characters champion jockey-turned-racetrack mystery writer Dick Francis has ever written about more than once is champion jockey-turned-racetrack private eye SID HALLEY, who made his debut in the Edgar-nominated Odds Against (1965).
When his left hand is mangled beyond repair in a racing accident (horses are heavy), Halley is devastated. It’s a fall from grace, professionally and more importantly, personally. Unable to face a future without racing, he takes up self-pity. Full-time.
Fortunately, his former father-in-law steps in and cons Sid into investigating some shady goings-on at a racetrack he has an interest in. It turns out to be the boot in the arse Sid needs. Discovering he has a knack for detective work, he sets himself up as a private investigator, sometimes assisted by boyhood chum and sometime-judo instructor Chico Barnes. The crippled, introspective, moody Halley and the rough-and-tumble, happy-go-lucky Barnes are a memorable team.
Francis captures perfectly the fears, insecurities and the vulnerability of a one-handed man in a two-handed world. It’s a toss-up as to who’s the better one-armed dick–Halley or Michael Collins’ Dan Fortune. In a society that worships the beautiful, the deformed and damaged are the true outsiders, easy targets for bullying from everyone from schoolyard yahoos and barroom louts to American presidents, watching from outside the circle of light, nursing their pain and resentment, hiding their hurt like so much shame, watching. There’s a powerful, gut-wrenching scene in Odds Against, a scene where Halley, in the course of his investigation, encounters a secretary who sits with her face to the wall. Turns out she’s been disfigured, the result of an accident, and the shock of recognition of a mutual shame and hurt, of two kindred, damaged souls sharing a moment, is shattering, and still haunts me, decades later. The Edgar-winning ODDS AGAINST, featuring his ex-jockey PI Sid Halley, is where to start. People who dismiss Francis’ books as “cozies” are missing the point–or have never read them. They’re about as cozy as a kick in the nuts.
In 1978, a British television series based on the characters created in Odds Against appeared, entitled The Racing Game. Francis served as a consultant and was very impressed with the young, one-handed (or was he?) actor, Michael Gwilym, who played Sid Halley. So impressed that he wrote a sequel, 1979’s Whip Hand, and dedicated it to Gwilym. Many, including this author himself, considered it to be his best book. There was only one season of the show, but the first three episodes were also aired in the U.S. in the first season of PBS’ Mystery!, with the final three airing in its second season.
And in 1995, for the first time in his career, Francis wrote a third book about the same character. Come to Grief brought us a much scarred Halley, as tenacious an investigator as ever, but forced to come to grips with his own mortality and limitations. And then a very close friend becomes the main suspect in a nasty case he’s working on, involving the deliberate mutilation of racehorses. It’s a troubling and disturbing read, but also a powerful one, and it nabbed Francis an unprecedented third Edgar nomination — the only time three consecutive books in a series have each been nominated for an Edgar. Although Odds Against (his first nomination) lost, both Whip Hand and Come to Grief did win. In fact, the same year he won the latter he was named an MWA Edgar Grand Master. Of course by then, the British Crime Writers Association had already awarded him its Gold Dagger Award in 1979 and the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 1989, and was to be awarded a CBE, Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2000.
Unfortunately, Come to Grief was to be the last novel Francis completed with the assistance of his beloved wife and partner, Mary, who passed away in 2000. The 1999 unauthorised biography, Dick Francis: A Racing Life, had suggested that Francis’ books had in fact been written by Mary herself, although Francis never confirmed the rumours. Certainly, though, Mary did do much of the research and editing of Francis’ novels and stories, particularly the latter efforts.
After Mary’s death, it was widely believed that Come to Grief would be Francis’ final novel, but in September 2006 readers were treated to the unexpected appearances of a fourth Halley novel. Under Orders found Halley back on his feet (after the events of 1995’s Come to Grief) and, if anything, more determined than ever to once more get his bearings.
Much like Francis himself, evidently. Under Orders would be the last book he would attempt to write alone. Dead Heat (2007), a new (non-Halley) novel, was co-written by Francis and his son Felix. The two collaborated on three more novels, until Francis passed away in 2010.
2011 saw the release, for the first time, of a novel written soley by Felix, but just in case anyone missed the connection, it was called Dick Francis’ Gamble. By all accounts, it turns out Felix is a chip off the old block, although every single one of his subsequent books bears his father’s name in the actual title. Including a 2013 novel, Dick Francis’ Refusal, which brought back Sid Halley…..
- “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don’t like God.”
— John Leonard, The New York Times
- “Halley is a true exemplar of a Francis hero, a man intelligent and principled, with a hand terribly injured in a racing accident, the sight of it enough to make new acquaintances gasp, who finds bravery and his true calling in the midst of a storm of adversity.”
— Neil Nyren on Odds Against
- “I’d lost what I wanted most in the world and lost it irrevocably. I’d found nothing else to want.”
- Odds Against (1965) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- Whip Hand (1979) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Come to Grief (1995) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Under Orders (2006) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Written by Felix Francis
- Dick Francis’ Refusal (2013; aka “Refusal”) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Hands Down (2022) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- THE RACING GAME | Buy the complete run on DVD
(1978, Yorkshire Television)
Six one-hour episodes
Based on characters created by Dick Francis
Story Consultant: Dick Francis
Writers: Terence Feely, Leon Griffiths, Evan Jones, Trevor Preston
Directors: Lawrence Gordon Clark, John Mackenzie, Peter Duffell, Colin Bucksey
Producer: Jacky Stoller
Executive Producer: David Cunliffe
Starring Mike Gwilym as SID HALLEY
and Mick Ford as CHICO BARNES
Also starring James Maxwell, Susan Wooldridge
- “Odds Against”
- “Gambling Lady”
- “Horses for Courses”
DVD & VIDEOS
- THE RACING GAME, VOL. 1 | Buy this video
3-cassette set, comprising three episodes of television series
- THE RACING GAME, VOL. 2 | Buy this video
3-cassette set, comprising remaining three episodes of television series.
- THE RACING GAME | Buy this DVD set
Two-DVD set comprising entire run.
- Dick Francis: A Crime Reader’s Guide to the Classics
On the Gripping Mysteries of the Jockey-Turned-Author (CrimeReads, February 2019)
- The Edgar Awards Revisited: Come to Grief by Dick Francis (Best Novel, 1996)
By Larry Clow gives a glow (October 2019, Criminal Element)