Dick Francis

(1920-2010)

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.

* * * * *

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……

UNDER OATH

  • “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

NOVELS

     

SHORT STORIES

  • “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”
  • “Corkscrew”
  • “Haig’s Death”

COLLECTIONS

NON-FICTION

  • The Sport of Queens (1957)

REFERENCE

  • Dick Francis: A Racing Life (1999)
  • The Dick Francis Companion (2003; by Jean Swanson and Dean James) | Buy this book

FILMS

  • DEAD CERT
    (1974, United Artists/Woodfall Film Productions)
    99 minutes
    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.

TELEVISION

  • THE RACING GAME
    (1978, Yorkshire Television)
    6 episodes
    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.

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

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