Although only a handful of them are even professional investigators, master Britsh thriller writer DICK FRANCIS must be considered one of the best private eye authors of the late twentieth century, delivering a consistently solid, entertaining and distinctive body of work that can proudly stand up to any of his contemporaries.
A former Welsh steeplechase jockey who became the official jockey for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, winning over 350 National Hunt races, Francis stumbled into a second, even more lucrative profession upon his retirement from professional racing. He became one of the most respected and popular mystery writers in the world, winning numerous awards including three Edgar Awards, the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger, and the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award.
His heroes were invariably cool, aloof loners, calmly professional and possessed of a dogged pragmatism and steely determination that Hammett’s Continental Op would have understood. They are also often at loose ends with their lives, and often scarred, physically and/or emotionally. They may not all be “official” eyes, but they certainly end up doing the job, even if the job description doesn’t mention it. And, of course, each novel touches somehow on racing and horses.
To overlook Francis’ work, or dismiss it as merely horsey versions of Agatha Christie (as many American hard-boiled readers do) is just wrong. Dame Christie would never people her quaint little villages with such an assortment of villainous psychopaths and sociopaths, and would most definitely not put her heroes through such physical and mental torture. People get hurt in these books, and their pain isn’t easily walked off. The bad guys are nasty, and brutal, and the books are often hard-boiled almost to the point of noir. Fans of the P.I. genre could do a lot worse than to check out his work.
More specifically, his greatest creation: the vaguely autobiographical Sid Halley, a former star jockey who finds a second career and a second life as a private investigator. It wouldn’t be the first time–or the last–that Francis would write about a professional investigator: he also wrote books about David Cleveland (another investigator), Andrew Douglas (kidnapping/security consultant) and Tor Kelsey (train security expert).
But the books featuring Halley–Odds Against (1965), Whip Hand (1979), Come to Grief (1995) and Under Orders (2006) are by far his best, both commercially and critically, with Odds Against being nominated for an Edgar for Best Novel and both Whip Hand and Come to Grief actually winning.
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Dick was born Richard Stanley Francis in 1920, and pretty much grew up around horses. He learned to ride when he was five, on a donkey of all things. The story goes that his older brother bet him sixpence that little Dick couldn’t jump a fence while sitting backwards on the donkey. It took a few tries, but eventually he did it, collecting the wager and earning, as he put it, his “first riding fee.”
. He was raised around horses. Soon, he dedicated his life to racing them. He enjoyed a successful career as a steeplechase jockey (which is to say, a hurdle racer) that ended when he was thirty-six and his mount, Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse, collapsed forty yards from winning the Grand National. To this day, the horse’s collapse is one of the legends of the British racing world. No one knows why its back legs simply gave out a few moments after it had pulled ahead of the competition. A lazy critic would be tempted to wonder if Francis spent the rest of his life inventing fictional explanations for this permanent enigma
Francis became an amateur steeplechase rider when he was 26, and two years later began riding as a professional steeplechase jockey, eventually winning more than 350 races. At 36, he retired as a jockey, After Devon Loch, the horse he was riding (for the Queen, no less) stumbled and fell less than forty yards from winning the Grand National–a legendary incident that to this day remains unsolved. Another bad fall followed and Francis figure it was time to quit. He began covering racing for the Sunday Express, and published his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, in 1957, which became a bestseller. Encouraged by its success, he tried his hand at a mystery novel. Dead Cert, which saw print in 1962, and it too became a bestseller. He ended up writing over forty mysteries, averaging one a year for a long stretch, until the death of his beloved wife and writing partner Mary (Margaret Brenchley) in 2000. In fact, the 1999 unauthorised biography, Dick Francis: A Racing Life, had suggested that Francis’ books had in fact been written by Mary herself, although Francis denied the rumours.
Certainly, though, Mary acted as a sounding board, did much of the research, some of it quite hands-on (including, at one point, learning to fly a plane!), and editing of Francis’ novels and stories, particularly the latter efforts, and Francis wasn’t shy about giving credit where credit was due. As he explained in a 2003 interview, “I am Richard, Mary is Mary and Dick Francis was the two of us together.”
After her death, it was widely believed that Come to Grief (1995) would be Francis’ final novel, but in September 2006 readers were treated to the unexpected appearance of a fourth Halley novel. Under Orders found Francis’ series character Halley back on his feet (after the events of 1995’s Come to Grief) and, if anything, more determined than ever.
Much like Francis himself, evidently. Plagued by poor health in his later years, Francis had a heart bypass operation in 2006, and had his right leg amputated the following year. But he soldiered on with a new writing partner: his son Felix.
2007 saw the publication of Dead Heat, a new novel, co-written by Francis and his son Felix. Others soon followed: Silks in 2008, Even Money in 2009 and Crossfire, which was published in 2010, just months after Francis died of natural causes in February 2010 at his retirement home in Grand Cayman. He was survived by Mary and his two sons, Felix and Merrick.
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 books bears his father’s name in the actual title. Including a 2013 novel, Dick Francis’ Refusal, which brings back Sid Halley……
- “Dick Francis is my favorite author. This is not just from my perspective as a reader, but also from my perspective as a writer. When I sat down to write Chapel of the Ravens, one of my early novels, I literally took a paperback copy of Dick Francis’s For Kicks apart in order to study in-depth how Francis structured his plots. Over the years I have returned to Francis time and again for comfort reads and to be inspired as a writer by the incredibly easy flow of his narrative.”
—Paul Bishop (November 1999, DorothyL)
- “A thriller from starting gun to finish line–Dick Francis is a storyteller in the Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett tradition.”
— Amarillo Globe-Times on Odds Against
- Dead Cert (1962; Alan York, jockey) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Nerve (1964; Rob Finn, jockey) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- For Kicks (1965; Daniel Roke, stud farm owner)
- Odds Against (1965; Sid Halley, ex-jockey/private detective) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- Flying Finish (1966; Henry Grey, amateur jockey/air transport )
- Blood Sport (1967; Gene Hawkins, agent)
- Forfeit (1969; James Tyrone, racing reporter)
- Enquiry (1969; Kelly Hughes, jockey)
- Rat Race (1971; Matt Shore, pilot)
- Bonecrack (1971; Neil Griffon, stable owner )
- Smokescreen (1972; Edward Lincoln, actor–South Africa) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Slay Ride (1973; David Cleveland, private investigator) | Buy this book
- Knockdown (1974; Jonah Dereham, ex-jockey/horse buyer)
- High Stakes (1975; Steven Scott, inventor) | Buy this book
- In the Frame (1976; Charles Todd, artist)
- Risk (1977; Roland Britten, accountant )
- Trial Run (1978; Randall Drew, ex-jockey–Moscow)
- Whip Hand (1979; Sid Halley, ex-jockey/private detective) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Reflex (1981; Philip Nore, jockey ) | Buy this book
- Twice Shy (1982; Jonathan Derry, physicist)
- Banker (1982; Tim Ekaterin, investment banker)
- The Danger (1984; Andrew Douglas, kidnapping expert) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Proof (1985; Tony Beach, wine merchant)
- Break In (1986; Kit Fielding, jockey )
- Bolt (1986; Kit Fielding, jockey )
- Hot Money (1987; Ian Pembroke, jockey)
- The Edge (1988; Tor Kelsey, security agent; transcontinental train, Canada) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Straight (1989; Derek Franklin, jockey)
- Longshot (1990; John Kendall, travel guide writer)
- Comeback (1991; Peter Darwin, British first secretary–Miami, Florida)
- Driving Force (1992; Freddie Croft, horse transporter)
- Decider (1993; Lee Morris, architect)
- Wild Horses (1994; Thomas Lyon, filmmaker)
- Come to Grief (1995; Sid Halley, private detective) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- To the Hilt (1996; painter)
- 10 lb. Penalty (1997; Ben Juliard, steeplechaser)
- Second Wind (1999) | Buy this book
- Shattered (2000) | Buy this book
- Under Orders (2006; Sid Halley, ex-jockey/private detective) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Co-written with Felix Francis
- Dead Heat (2007; Max Moreton, chef) | Buy this book
- Silks (2008; Geoffrey Mason, barrister) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Even Money (2009; Ned Talbot, bookie) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Crossfire (2010; Captain Tom Forsyth, Afghan vet) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Written by Felix Francis
- Dick Francis’ Gamble (2011; ex-jockey Nick Foxton) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Dick Francis’ Bloodline (2012; TV announcer Mark Shillingford) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Dick Francis’ Refusal (2013; Sid Halley). Buy this book. Kindle it!
- Damage (2014; investigator Jeff Hinkley) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Front Runner (2015; investigator Jeff Hinkley
- Triple Crown (2016; investigator Jeff Hinkley)
- Pulse (2017, doctor Chris Rankin
- Crisis (2018, crisis manager Harry Foster)
- Guilty, Not Guilty (2019; track steward Bill Russell) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- “Carrot for a Chestnut” (January 5, 1970, Sports Illustrated)
- “The Big Story,” (May 7, 1973, Sports Illustrated; aka “A Day of Wine and Roses”)
- “The Gift” (1973)
- “Nightmare” (1974, The Times)
- “Raid at Kingdom Hill” (1975)
- “The Day of the Losers” (February 1977, Horse and Hound)
- “Bright White Star” (1979, Chesire Life)
- “Twenty-One Good Men and True” (1979, Verdict of Thirteen: A Detection Club Anthology; aka “Blind Chance”)
- “Spring Fever” (1980, Women’s Own)
- “Dead on Red”
- “Song for Mona”
- “Collision Course”
- “Haig’s Death”
- The Sport of Queens (1957)
- Dick Francis: A Racing Life (1999)
- The Dick Francis Companion (2003; by Jean Swanson and Dean James) | Buy this book
- DEAD CERT
(1974, United Artists/Woodfall Film Productions)
Based on the novel by Dick Francis
Screenplay by John Oaksey and Tony Richardson
Directed by Tony Richardson
Produced by Neil Hartley
Starring Scott B. Anthony as ALAN YORK
Also starring Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Nina Thomas, Mark Digham, Julian Glover, Joseph Blatchley, John Bindon, Dervis Ward, Ian Hogg.
- THE RACING GAME
(1978, Yorkshire Television)
Based on characters created by Dick Francis
Starring Mike Gwilym as SID HALLEY
and Mick Ford as CHICO BARNES
- THE DICK FRANCIS MYSTERIES
(1989, Comedia Entertainment Inc/Raidio Teilifis Eireann)
Based on the novels by Dick Francis
Executive producers: Dennis E. Doty and Jacky Stoller
Starring Ian McShane as DAVID CLEVELAND
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.
- THE DICK FRANCIS MYSTERIES | Buy the VHS set | Buy the DVD set
Includes all three “David Cleveland” movies: Bloodsport, In the Frame and Twice Shy.
OH THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAYED!
- Francis’ 1975 novel, High Stakes, was adapted into a 1986 text adventure game by Mindscape for MS-DOS and Apple II. According to old-games.com, the game is “as ‘exciting’ as interactive fiction can possibly get, with a lot of intense, real-time action sequences in which you must make split-second decisions (or typing, as it were)… The action starts right away in the beginning scene, when you must escape from a truck.”
- For One Writer, Rediscovering The Novels Of Dick Francis Was the Answer to a Personal Crisis and a Mysterious Illness
How novelist John Fram’s found comfort & inspiration in some old books. (July 2021, CrimeReads)
- Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.