Dick Francis Essay - Critical Essays

Dick Francis Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Dick Francis’s novels, like those of most prolific mystery writers, rely on a relatively fixed range of predictable major elements within which the author achieves variation by the alteration and recombination of minor elements. The outstanding major feature for writers in the genre is usually the fixed character of the protagonist, who provides the guarantee of continuity in the series that is necessary to attract and maintain a steady readership. Variety is provided by the creation of a new cast of minor characters and a new criminal, though these new elements can usually be seen to form fairly consistent patterns over the course of an author’s work, as can the different plots developed by an author. Well-known examples of the amateur sleuth series in this mold are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels. Francis, however, breaks with this tradition by creating a new main character for every book, with the exceptions of Sid Halley and Kit Fielding. Francis achieves the continuity and consistency expected of him by his large and loyal public through the use of a general character-type rather than through one principal series character, and through a strong and stable emphasis on his customary setting, the world of horse racing.

The Francis Hero

Even though Francis seldom uses any character more than once, his two dozen or so protagonists are sufficiently similar that a composite picture of the paradigmatic Francis hero can be sketched. The only invariable rule is that the hero be a white male (no doubt because Francis, who has written all of his books in the first person, is reluctant to risk the detailed and extended portrayal of a character outside his own race and gender). The female characters in his work have drawn favorable reactions from feminist critics, who see his writing as going beyond the gender stereotypes common in most mystery and detective writing.

Allowing for a few exceptions to the rest of the features of the model, the hero is British; in his thirties; ordinary in appearance; of average or smaller than average stature; a member of the middle class economically, educationally, and socially; and interested in few pursuits outside his work. In other words, Francis’s heroes do not initially appear exceptional or heroic at all, but almost boringly average. The appeal of Francis’s books to a wide international audience is at least partly the result of the very ordinariness of his characters, which allows for a broad range of readers to identify readily with them, to feel that they, too, could be heroic under certain circumstances, just as Francis’s protagonists are. That these characters nevertheless arrive at a sort of heroic stature by the end of the book is not so much the result of special skills, training, or intelligence as it is the result of a combination of dedication to the job and a mental toughness, an ability to withstand psychological as well as physical pain (which may be a result of emotional hardships to which they have been subject). One of the few statistically extraordinary features shared by these protagonists is that they often have an irregular, unsettled, or otherwise trying family background: They tend to be orphans, or illegitimate, or widowers, or divorced, or, even if married, burdened by a disabled wife or child.

Another distinctive characteristic of the Francis heroes is that their work is usually connected with horse racing, most often as steeplechase jockeys (Francis’s own first career for a decade)....

(The entire section is 1464 words.)