by Brenda Williamson
I was introduced to Dick Francis, one of my favorite writers, by my husband, David, through the book Reflex and have been entranced ever since. I’d want Dick Francis books if marooned on a desert island.
Too many mysteries have unsavory victims whose crime is hardly worth solving. Take blackmailers for example. To make a blackmailer an acceptable victim of a crime that needs to be solved, the author needs to contrive some extra activities like having the blackmailer murder some innocent victims in order to make catching the blackmailer’s killer a worthwhile activity for the story’s protagonist. Really, who cares if a blackmailer is bumped off, especially by the victim?
In a great classic mystery, society is worse off for the absence of the great person or innocent victim who was murdered. Sometimes if you are following a mystery series, it is good enough if the protagonist (whether, for example, a private investigator or just an average person) needs to go on the run to prove their innocence so the police won’t indict them. But the truly great mysteries, in my opinion, require that the victim be someone we wish hadn’t been killed. Maybe we wish we had gotten to know them. Maybe we even think of them years after reading the book.
This is usually not a problem in Dick Francis mysteries. The murder victim(s) are almost always a loss to society and make you want the case to be solved and the perpetrator(s) come to a just end – a civilized form of revenge. Often, the protagonist is trying to avoid becoming the next victim himself.
Part of the charm of reading a Dick Francis novel, especially with his penchant for including professions other than horse racing in his mysteries, is that it leaves you with the feeling that you have learned something new – about photography, the wine business, flying, probate, high finance and the like.
I believe that Amazon reviewer David J. Gannon has it right about Dick Francis novels: “The formula consists of a highly independent, iconoclastic, extremely self-reliant protagonist who, for reasons he doesn’t fathom, has become the center of a storm that, before everything has played out, will involve him in intrigue, murder and at least one act of horrific violence aimed at him personally. There will be some sort of at least marginal if not central theme of horse racing and a specific theme to the book-precious gems, photography or, in the case of Proof, the wine business.”
My personal favorites of the 40-plus Dick Francis novels and stories include:
To The Hilt which has an unwilling protagonist, a landscape painter in the Highlands of Scotland: “I painted pictures. I lived in a broken-down long deserted shepherd’s hut, known as a bothy, out on a windy Scottish mountainside…I played the bagpipes.” He takes the reader from his bothy into a relative’s Highland castle in a mystery that includes the ceremonial sword of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the running of a brewery and corrupt financial advisors.
The Edge races across Canada on a fascinating train ride – one can almost picture the views from the train – as Dick Francis puts his own twist on the closed-door mystery.
Reflex weaves cameras into the racing story with a professional photographer protagonist. For this novel, Mary Francis, who was not only Dick’s wife but his researcher and co-writer, learned photography. One New York Times article called her his “literary helpmate” and son Felix once said they were “like Siamese twins, conjoined at the pencil.”
In Proof one learns about a wine and spirits merchant and his problems when a party goes very, very bad.
Hot Money delves into the corruption that is too often involved in wills and estates, especially in wealthy, dysfunctional families. When his wealthy father’s fifth wife is murdered, amateur jockey, Ian Pembroke, must wend his way through hostile family terrain to figure out if one of his own half-siblings or even his own mother is a murderer.
In Straight, our protagonist, an injured steeplechase jockey, loses his long-estranged brother to a mysterious death and takes us into the world of diamond trading and race horses when he investigates whether his brother’s murder was a random accident (of the type his brother feared) or a murder.
In Longshot a writer finds danger when he accepts a commission to write a biography. “I accepted a commission that had been turned down by four other writers, but I was hungry at the time.”
In Come to Grief, retired one-handed jockey, Sid Halley, returns to investigate the mutilation of race horses, taking us into the world of psychopathology and tabloid journalism.
Shattered takes us into the world of glass-blowing and stolen scientific data as the protagonist, a glass-blower, investigates the death of his jockey-friend in a race at Cheltenham steeplechase.
Most of the Dick Francis books are standalones so it doesn’t matter which one you pick up first. Several give a peek into the life of the same character, Sid Halley, for instance, but I think you can start reading whichever book you like.
Born Richard Stanley Francis in 1920 in Tenby, South Wales, Dick Francis was an RAF pilot in World War II, repairing and flying Spitfires, Wellingtons, and Lancasters. He married Mary Margaret Brenchley in 1940. She graduated from the University of London, was a publisher’s reader, stage manager and English teacher. According to Dick Francis, who sometimes referred to her as his co-writer, “She loved doing research, whichever subject I was writing about.”
Francis was the jockey to the Queen Mother before retiring to write award-winning novels. His autobiography is entitled, The Sport of Queens.
In my opinion, Field of Thirteen, a short story collection that included stories written after Mary’s death, didn’t have the perfectly smooth Dick Francis feel that the novels written in her lifetime did. I would recommend reading that collection later.
After Mary’s death in 2000, Dick Francis wrote four novels with his youngest son, Felix, who helped research novels before he began co-writing them with his father. Since Dick Francis’s death in 2010, Felix has taken off on his own, filling his father’s niche writing mysteries involving jockeys and horse racing.
Gamble (2011) is Felix Francis’s first novel without his father and it is a very good one, taking the reader into the world horseracing and high finance in the City of London, giving insight into current business practices, English laws, and corruption in the European Union. It is heartwarming to know of more great novels to come in the vein of Dick Francis. Since Gamble, he has written two more books, Bloodline(2012) and Refusal (2013).
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