by Sharon Tucker
There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse.
Dick Francis thrillers are a delight. His standalones and series detailed so many aspects of the racing world I have lost count. Moreover, in spite of the fact that I dislike gambling and competitive sports, I love his books. Sadly, Francis Senior passed away in 2010, yet the books continue to be written by his son Felix. Therefore, I was curious to see how his son Felix would carry on the family tradition of writing these absorbing mysteries about the racing world. What his readers enjoyed about Senior’s books was his love of horses, the racing game, and his respect for those who made it work. He was deeply versed in horses, loving them for their beauty, their heart, and for the connection between horse and rider. I appreciated his toughness of mind in tackling what could go wrong with the sport. Only someone who loved it deeply could be brave enough to out the sport at its worst without tarnishing it. Having won over 350 races in his career as a jockey, he certainly knew the mechanics of racing but added to that was a clear, gripping prose style that one just could not stop reading.
Initially, I was surprised when I read an article by Joanna Moorhead that appeared in The Guardian, August 28, 2009 (Dick Francis: a Family Business) detailing how the novels were a cooperative family effort with Senior doing the writing. He turned to his family for help with varied characters, plot twists, and the many and varied occupations of the characters in forty-four novels as of that date. After a bit of thought, it all made sense—so many novels, such a wealth of information—and his extended family of over thirty-three at that time must have been a delightful source for insight and information. His primary writing partner had been his wife Mary whom he lost in 2000, but his son Felix, formerly a headmaster and physics teacher, took up the mantle. Now that Senior, too, has passed, Felix has carried on in the family tradition and has six Dick Francis novels to his credit. We have fifty-three to date and still counting.
One of my favorites of the novels is Whip Hand (1979). It is the first featuring Sid Halley, who became a recurring character in three later novels as well as the principle character in a mini-series. Having lost a hand in a racing accident, Halley’s career as a steeplechase jockey came to an abrupt halt, but luckily, he had a flair for investigation. In the first thirty pages, Halley accepts not one but three potential investigations. The first involves the frantic wife of a prize winning horse trainer whose promising two-year olds have failed to live up to their potential. She is adamant that a fix is on but there’s no evidence of drugging or other obvious tampering with any of his horses. The second involves Halley’s ex-wife who left him because she felt his profession would always take priority but whose father has asked Halley to rescue her and his own name from a fraudulent charity swindle. The last is an elderly aristocrat for whom Halley won races in the past who strongly suspects the syndicate he has lent his name to is not quite honest and asks help to confirm or deny his suspicions. Halley is a fine example of the type of character Senior has always written so well: principled, tough-minded and whose intelligence enhances his knowledge of racing.
Crossfire (2010) is the first of the formally collaborative Dick Francis novels written by Senior and Felix wherein a wounded veteran of the Afghanistan War comes back to England to rehab a severe wound. Capt. Tom Forsyth surprised himself by going to stay with his only family, a sister famous for beautifully trained racehorses. She and her husband are obviously under great stress and adamantly refuse to discuss why. Forsyth soon sees that her horses who should be winners are sometimes ill; failing at the races, but no drug test has turned up any obvious tampering. It’s up to him to get to the truth his obstinate, headstrong sister is determined to keep secret. They have a history of not getting on too well as it is that gets in the way of clear communication but trust him to instinctively make good use of his experience of intelligence in warfare to investigate his family troubles.
Felix Francis has written three novels so far featuring Jeff Hinckley, an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority and this one finds him going to America to assist the Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FASCA) that has evidence of information leaking from their agency that benefits those under investigation. In Triple Crown (2016), Hinckley poses as a groom to investigate fully the everyday working of the stables that house the horses prior each of the three American races known collectively as the Triple Crown: The Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. The reputation of American horseracing is at stake and for Hinckley, his personal safety is systematically threatened on both a small and large scale. Readers will find the marked difference between American and British horseracing fascinating even though I must say I prefer reading about British. I think some of it is that British racing is on a smaller, individual scale, with horses coming in to the racetracks from home (or where they are trained) prior to each race. In this novel, we learn the Triple Crown race tracks house the horses that are to run for some time prior to each race. Some tracks here are open for six months a year with racing five times a week—just not done in Britain.
Admittedly, I was apprehensive about the change in authorship for these novels. I strongly suspected a mere pecuniary motive both on the part of the publishers and of Felix Francis himself for carrying on for what Senior had started. I suspect I was wrong overall, really, especially where Felix is concerned. While the novels I have read and am reading written by Felix are indeed different, they are nonetheless as gripping and entertaining. It disturbed me initially that Felix had not the experience with the racing world from the inside, first hand, and the direct experience on the track, loving and trusting horses: connecting with them on a tactile and personal level. While this may be true provisionally, I doubt that it is factual. The books are still what they were a family collaboration. I think my initial mistake came from not choosing novels wisely since I chose Triple Crown and Even Money (2009), one about American racing and the other with a bookie as the main character; I really dislike gambling and had to fight my way through on those grounds alone. I’ve started Pulse (2017) and find myself back in the fold. What better accolade can one give an author than to look forward to reading more with great anticipation! I feel the yen to read and write more about his books so will keep you posted.
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