Francis, Dick (Vol. 22)
It's a pleasure as rare as it is gratifying to watch an author start out well and then get steadily better with each book. This has been the case with Dick Francis; and since his second novel, "Nerves," was one of the most highly acclaimed of last year's suspense stories, it follows that his third, "For Kicks" …, must be an absolute beauty—as indeed it is.
A young Australian horse-breeder is hired to come to England and pose as a stable lad to smoke out the clever criminals who have rigged a seemingly undetectable method of fixing horse races. The detection is ingenious and detailed; the gimmick is a fine one; and the background of life among horses and trainers and stable lads (and criminals) is so real you can smell and taste it. The people, moreover, are as real as the horses (which is saying a lot); and very few novels … have done a comparably penetrating job of studying the effect of detection upon the character of the detective himself. As a puzzle, as a thriller, as a novel of milieu, and as an essay in character, "For Kicks" is a winner—and with a grand final surprise lurking after the plot seems to be concluded.
Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 21. 1965. p. 22.∗
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There seems to be no limit, fortunately, to Mr. Francis' ability to invent skulduggery about steeplechasing. He is the best thriller writer going, with the conventional merits of uproar and bloodshed, plus an attention to practical detail and a shrewd understanding of social maneuver that pull his stories out of that never-never land in which crime novels tend to wander. The origin of all this can be detected in his autobiography, The Sport of Queens…. The book tells a great deal about horses and racing, offers pleasantly malicious advice to inexperienced persons proposing to meddle with either, and reveals, more or less backhandedly, that the author has always liked to do a job right.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Short Reviews: 'Forfeit'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1969, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 223, No. 3, March, 1969, p. 154.
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When [Dick Francis] began writing mysteries, he joined that small and cherished group of mystery-thriller writers … who combine expertise, a sure hand with suspense, and solid plots. His knowledge of the racing world creates a background of almost Dickensian realism for his stories….
[Mr. Francis' autobiography, "The Sport of Queens," is] a pleasant and informative book, but I'm almost sorry to report that you can give it to your meekest, horse-loving 12-year-old niece without a qualm. She will learn a lot about thoroughbred racing (a very elegant sport in Mr. Francis' league); but I missed f330the pointed little character sketches, the crisp details, and of course the beastly villains and shapely plots I'd found in his novels.
"Forfeit," by contrast, begins in a properly seedy newspaper office where James Tyrone, a racing journalist, has casually opened a letter from a magazine wanting him to do a free-lance piece on the Lamplighter Gold Cup, and he decides he wants the assignment….
Like the protagonists of Mr. Francis' earlier novels, James Tyrone is a likable, fallible man who combines specialized knowledge and ordinary problems in nice proportion: a representative, if you like, of the reader, thrown into a crucial situation and living up to his secret, hopeful expectations for himself under fire.
Judith Rascoe, "On Vicarious Danger," in The...
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Francis improves with every book as both a writer of brisk, lucid prose and as a concocter of ingenious and intricately worked-out plots. He has acquired something of Ian Fleming's easy expertise in handling technical information, though his travels in Norway and South Africa led him in recent books into unnecessarily detailed diversions. In Knock Down the information was at his finger tips and the sales ring scenes are hair-raisingly convincing. Where he has followed Fleming less satisfactorily is in the increase in goriness and the stretching of improbability. He opts for a dozen crimes where one would do; as with Simon Raven, a writer of similar skills in the building-up of suspense, his imagination takes hold at crucial moments and finally runs off with him. He has now got a good enough horse under him to ride a waiting race. Meanwhile, a course of Simenon and a pair of blinkers would not come amiss. (pp. 142-43)
Philip Pelham, "Special Notices: 'Knock Down'," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), Vol. 14, No. 6, February-March, 1975, pp. 142-43.
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ALEX de JONGE
Dick Francis holds his form like a top-class chaser and it is a joy to see him back in the field. Any novel by him beginning "Thursday March 17th" must mean Cheltenham on Gold Cup day, and lo and behold his hero, an accountant and amateur jockey, actually has a ride in the big race….
As usual aspects of [Risk] make one a little uneasy. Characterization is sometimes thin and stylized, especially the villains, out to inflict pain upon the accountant who has uncovered their villainy, crooked businessmen and trainers, all a little too well dressed, florid and unexpectedly brutal bullies, created with a faint hint of paranoia. The villainy itself is a little implausible in some respects, and Mr Francis's view of trainers may cause an eyebrow or two to go up in Upper Lambourn. As usual, too, the writer seems more at home in the weighing room than in the bedroom. Fortunately more of the action takes place in the weighing room.
One is never really aware of these weaknesses as one reads; partly because the book is superbly constructed and the hero persecuted in a way that is mystifying, frightening and beautifully described, as he undergoes three separate ordeals of close and increasingly uncomfortable confinement; and partly because the author is so good at catching incidental scenes and making them memorable—an exchange between trainer, owner and jockey in the bar at Towcester races comes to mind…....
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[Just as Dick Francis demonstrates] capabilities both substantial and varied, so too do we find his protagonists—who are in one form or another versions of Francis himself—to be multi-talented individuals…. Sooner or later, of course, all Francis heroes—be they jockeys or trainers or transport pilots or actors or blood-struck agents—must also of necessity become detectives.
In considering the make-up of the Francis hero it is interesting to examine Francis' attitude toward amateurism/professionalism. Clearly he has little interest in conduct or effort that might be considered "amateurish," nor in professionals who do not take their professions seriously. Just as clearly he greatly admires the true professional—the man who goes about his work with the confidence based on full knowledge of what is required and an awareness that he has the skills to attend to those demands. Francis' greatest affection, however, seems reserved for what might be called the "amateur professional"—the figure who does what he does (with all the talent and commitment of the true professional) for the love of the thing, and not for money. (p. 239)
One thing Francis heroes are not is James Bond types. To be sure, their abilities are considerable and diverse; they are extremely resourceful, always capable of rising to the crisis at hand. But at the same time they are usually—outside of their area of particular expertise, and at...
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The popular Dick Francis, who turns out a beautifully finished product year in and year out, adds to his already formidable list with "Trial Run."… Perhaps one reason for his reliability, and for his readers' delight in the product, is the fact that he discovered a dependable formula from the very beginning and has relentlessly pursued it. A Dick Francis novel, well written though it may be, is not going to have any great surprises….
In all the Francis novels, the hero has something to do with horse racing, and generally the steeplechase…. The Francis hero is an upholder of the stiff-upper-lip British traditions, and usually he is an upper-class type. He is very smart, laconic, moving easily among the upper crust and sharing their secret language. They recognize one another. He is an Arthurian knight, more Lancelot than Galahad, for he is not prissy and enjoys sex so long as the ground rules are observed. The Francis villains are unfailingly "common." Some of them may have upper-class pretensions, but a slip of the tongue, an act that only a cad would do, invariably betrays them. There can be something very inbred and snobbish in the Francis books.
"Trial Run" is a little different, in that it takes place mostly in Moscow. (p. 34)
Mr. Francis has been in Moscow. He describes that unlovely city with sheer distaste, and has some pointed observations to make about the repression there. He...
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[Because it sticks more to racing than some of his other novels, Dick Francis's Whip Hand] is happily up to standard. The style is confident, the prose direct, the characterization and dialogue convincing. (p. 95)
[Sid Halley, ex-jockey and private investigator,] is a typically mean, embittered Francis hero, who has lost a hand in a racing smash when at the top of the jockey's list; he has to contend, too, with a ruined marriage and a bitchy ex-wife. Every Francis hero bears a grudge of some sort against the world, whether it be from natural or other causes. Francis himself has said that he finds it easier to write of such characters because it helps to build up the tension and provide motivation. Halley, like the others, has an account to square. The villains are—as in Fleming's books—corrupt, evil and sadistic; mainly establishment or semi-establishment figures whose lusts for power and money have totally twisted them. For them the racing game is an instrument for social revenge, or a means to an illegal fortune.
It is undeniable that Francis works to a formula—the hard-done-by chap blindly at grips with an unknown evil, the threads of which he gradually unravels. Frequently—perhaps too frequently—he is subjected to physical torture described in some detail. His heroes are hard men used to injury and pain and they learn to dish it out as once they had to learn to take it. Racing has made them...
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It was the late Edmund Crispin who recommended Dick Francis to me. "If you can stand the horse parts", he said, "the mystery parts are quite good," I found this an understatement in reverse. The horse parts, as everyone knows by now, are brilliant vignettes of a tiny portion of English life: the world of steeplechase racing. Novel by novel we meet the jockeys, the trainers, the owners (usually being taken for a ride in another sense), the bookmakers, the bloodstock agents, the sporting journalists. We learn what it is like to be a stableboy at a skinflint North Country trainer's, to ride in freezing February fog (the first sentence of the first novel is "The mingled smell of hot horse and cold river mist filled my nostrils"), to be Clerk of a run-down course that wrongdoers are determined to close. But the mystery parts, if inevitably less realistic, arise naturally from the greed, corruption and violence that lie behind the champagne, big cars and titled Stewards; they concern horse-pulling and betting frauds, and lead to wads of used notes in anonymous envelopes, whispered warnings by telephone, and sudden hideous confrontations with big men in stocking masks.
[The elements of steeplechase racing and mystery] are welded into adult reading by the Francis hero. Francis has no recurrent central character, no Bond or Marlowe; his heroes are jockeys, trainers, an owner who manufactures children's toys, a journalist, a Civil Service...
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The mixture as before—or is it? Well, not quite. The formula [in Reflex] is certainly the same—the jockey struggling against odds, the secondary background, in this case photography, expertly related to the racing, the unflagging pace, the intricately worked-out plots—not always cohering—the nice girl innocently involved. As always the racing scenes are splendid, terse, evocative and of such immediate impact that one can almost hear the smash of birch and the thud of hooves; the photographic side, too, has clearly been carefully researched, its technicalities being set down with obsessional attention to detail.
But these are things common to the whole canon of Francis' work. This time a new dimension has been added. Since, and not before time, there is less emphasis on brutality—there is only one ritual beating up—he has been enabled to flesh out his characters. The portrait of Philip Nore, the mediocre jockey nearing the end of his career, is created with real insight; as is the interpretation of his relations with the horses he rides. (pp. 143-44)
The subsidiary characters, too, are brought to life with a surer touch than usual…. By widening and deepening the scope of his talents Francis has lost nothing of his narrative drive, so that he has here created something as far superior to the ordinary thriller as a classic winner to a selling plater. (p. 144)
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Some years ago, reviewing a novel by Robert Coover, Wilfrid Sheed said that "not to read it because you don't like baseball is like not reading Balzac because you don't like boarding houses." I bring this up because I am entirely innocent of race tracks. And yet: Not to read Dick Francis because you don't like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don't like God. Baseball, boarding houses, race tracks and God are subcultures. A writer has to have a subculture to stand up on….
What distinguishes "Reflex" from other Dick Francis fictions is its multitude of plots, all of them connecting, as if the artist were a spider with galactic aspirations for the latest web. What distinguishes Philip from previous reluctant heroes in Dick Francis fictions is that he is as much a photographer as he is a jockey, and we learn as much about developing film as we do about the steeplechase.
A camera, Philip tells us, is "your shield. Keeps you a step away from the world. Makes you an observer. Gives you an excuse not to feel." Perhaps. Certainly, in the movies of Antonioni and the novels of Jerzy Kosinski, the darkroom is as important as boarding houses were to Balzac and the bull was to Hemingway.
"Reflex" enthralls. Not the least of Mr. Francis's many accomplishments in his most complicated and successful mystery is that he introduces two characters who are supposed to be intelligent and who actually...
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[The] first page of "Reflex" shows Dick Francis doing what comes most naturally to him; it is also what he does best—writing about the thrills, spills and chills of horse racing.
There is a lot about riding for money in this book, and all of it is excellent….
Along with all the verve [shown in his first book "Dead Cert"], he now has much more knowledge about how to develop a story and make a plot work. Mr. Francis came to writing after a very successful career as a professional rider…. It seemed unlikely that his specialized knowledge would provide more than three or four fictional themes. Mr. Francis has proved those who nursed such thoughts to be entirely wrong. He has varied his plots intelligently…. (p. 3)
The best things in ["Reflex"], unless you enjoy the photographic puzzles, are the scenes of racing life, which are as good as anything Mr. Francis has done….
"Reflex" contains more interesting characterizations than most of Mr. Francis' books, particularly in Philip's poignant recollections of his shadowy butterfly mother, who used her charm to dump her small boy on one friend after another over the years. But there are limits to Mr. Francis' talent. His heroines are present simply to fill a few pages and sometimes to share a bed, and the characters who lie outside the racing world he knows so well are often drawn perfunctorily. Mr. Francis might reply that a writer...
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