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Dick Francis was born Richard Stanley Francis on October 31, 1920, in Lawrenny, near Tenby in southern Wales to George Vincent Francis and Catherine Mary (née Thomas) Francis. His father and grandfather were both horsemen, and Francis was riding from the age of five. He began riding show horses at the age of twelve and always had the ambition to become a jockey. Francis interrupted his pursuit of a riding career to serve as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, but in 1946 he made his debut as an amateur jockey and turned professional in 1948. At the peak of his career, Francis rode in as many as four hundred races a year and was ranked among the top jockeys in Great Britain in every one of the ten years he rode. In 1954, he began riding for Queen Elizabeth; in 1957, he retired at the top of his profession and began his second career.

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Francis began writing as a racing correspondent for the London Sunday Express, a job he held for the next sixteen years, and started work on his autobiography, The Sport of Queens: The Autobiography of Dick Francis (1957). Although he had dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen, he refused the services of a ghostwriter, relying only on his wife, Mary Margaret Brenchley, a former publisher’s reader to whom he had been married in 1947, for editorial help, a job she performed for all of his books until her death in 2000. Reviewers were pleasantly surprised by Francis’s natural and economical style, and he was encouraged to try his hand at other writing. He produced his first mystery novel, Dead Cert, in 1962, immediately striking the right blend of suspenseful plotting and the racing setting that has structured his books since. His work was an immediate popular and critical success, and he received the Crime Writers’ Association’s Silver Dagger Award for For Kicks (1965) and the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for Forfeit (1968) in 1970, Whip Hand (1979) in 1981, and Come to Grief (1995) in 1996. From 1973 to 1974 he was the chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, and in 1989 he received that organization’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement. In 1996 Francis received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and in 2000 he received the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement. Francis died of natural causes at his home in Grand Cayman on February 14, 2010.


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Richard Stanley Francis was born in Wales on October 31, 1920, the son of George Vincent and Catherine Mary Francis. His father, a powerful influence in Francis’s life, had been a professional steeplechase jockey and later a riding instructor to royalty. Francis later dramatized in his novels his love-hate relationship with his demanding father.

Francis quit school at age fifteen in order to work with horses. His ambition was to become a steeplechase jockey like his father and to outperform his father in that dangerous profession. When he later became a writer, he had to work hard to make up for his scholastic deficiencies.

He postponed his career as a jockey when World War II began, joining the Royal Air Force in 1940, hoping to become a pilot. For a long time he had to be content with working ground crew but eventually overcame such obstacles as his limited education and learned to fly fighters, troop-carrying gliders, and bombers. His enthusiasm for this dangerous but exciting branch of military service was characteristic.

Francis married Mary Brenchley at war’s end. He rode his first steeplechase at age twenty-five, but not until he had ridden thirty-nine races did he experience his first win. By the end of the racing season in 1947, he had ridden nine winners and was thinking of turning professional when he had a major riding accident.

Physical pain and injuries are constant topics in Francis’s novels. His novels’ protagonists display a jockey’s indifference to such punishment. Francis writes from experience. During his career he suffered twelve broken collarbones, five broken noses, many broken ribs, three crushed vertebrae, a fractured skull, several broken arms and wrists, and a ruptured spleen. He retired in 1957 after a very bad fall, having decided he was getting too old for such punishment and wishing to quit while still at the top of his profession.

At the peak of his career, Francis was riding in three hundred to four hundred races annually. During the 1953-1954 racing season he earned the title of Champion Jockey for winning seventy-six races. He was noted for his bravery and empathy with his mounts. His love of horses was the common factor in his dual careers of jockey and novelist.

One major disappointment of Francis’s life was his failure to win England’s most prestigious sweepstakes event, the Grand National. In the 1956 Grand National, while riding Queen Mary’s horse, Devon Loch, eleven lengths ahead of the nearest contender, his mount faltered only thirty yards short of the finish line in front of a cheering crowd of 250,000. Devon Loch’s mysterious collapse and his resultant injuries helped influence Francis’s choice of a second career as a mystery writer and also influenced many of the plots he created.

His fame enabled Francis to make a good sum of money writing his autobiography, The Sport of Queens: The Autobiography of Dick Francis (1957, revised 1968, 1974, 1982, 1988). This writing experience, as arduous and painful psychologically as some of his spills and recuperations, made it possible for him to become a racing correspondent for the London Sunday Express. His journalism experience was invaluable to his career as a novelist. Encouraged by his wife, he learned to use simple, concrete English. When he published Dead Cert in 1962, he was already a competent professional writer.

One of the most traumatic events of Francis’s life was his wife Mary being stricken with polio in 1949 and having to live in an artificial respirator. He dramatized the incident in his award-winning novel Forfeit (1968). Fortunately, unlike the woman in the novel, Mary recovered from the disease and lived a normal life, bearing two sons and working as Francis’s researcher and collaborator. The couple enjoyed world travel but made their permanent home in the Caribbean (a partial setting for Forfeit). Francis’s fiction often contains disguised autobiography, a dramatization of personal experiences and emotions that heightens the power of his novels and their reader appeal. The couple also conducted research through experience. The Francises’ own private air-charter business provided the background for Rat Race (1970), Mary took up painting for In the Frame (1976), and both spent time in pharmacological laboratories preparing for Banker (1982). Twice Shy (1981) draws inspiration from Francis’s son Felix, a physics teacher, while Driving Force (1992) draws on his son Merrick’s experiences in the horse transport business.

Over the years, Francis became sophisticated, self-confident, and cosmopolitan. These changes are reflected in the settings of his novels and the characters with whom his protagonists interact. Francis, who wrote his first novel because “the carpets were wearing thin, the house needed painting, and the boys needed educating,” became a millionaire who could be depended upon to produce a best seller every year. In 1983, he was knighted, receiving the Order of the British Empire for his achievements as horseman and author. After Mary Francis’s death in 2000, Dick Francis stopped writing, but in 2006, with his son Felix acting as researcher and manager, he returned to his serial character Sid Halley with Under Orders (2006), one of his best, with its focus on determination in the face of injury and loss.

Dead Heat, published in September, 2007, brings together food poisoning and a terrorist bomb with a chef and restaurateur as amateur detective. In the year following the book’s appearance, Francis had open-heart surgery to insert a new valve, fractured his pelvis in a fall, and suffered severe circulatory problems, resulting in the amputation of his right leg. Francis died of natural causes at his home in Grand Cayman on February 14, 2010.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

Dick Francis has, amazingly, written more than forty novels over a period of more than forty-five years, all on the subject of horse racing in all its diversity. His heroes think on their feet while engaged in strenuous action. Over the years, his heroes, like their creator, have become more affluent, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan; they also have become more fully developed and more credibly motivated. Francis has received many honors for helping bring serious critical and scholarly attention to the genre of popular detective fiction. He merges the American and the British mystery-writing tradition, giving readers the best of both worlds.

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