Dick Francis Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1464

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.

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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). Francis’s later novels especially, however, are likely to feature some other profession, one that is peripherally or accidentally connected with racing. His heroes have been journalists (Forfeit), actors (Smokescreen, 1972), photographers (Reflex, 1980), bankers (Banker, 1982), wine merchants (Proof, 1984), writers (Longshot, 1990), architects (Decider, 1993), painters (To the Hilt, 1996), and glassblowers (Shattered, 2000). His extensive research into these professions results in detailed and realistic characterizations and settings. The reader of a Francis novel expects to be informed, not merely entertained—to learn something interesting about an unfamiliar professional world.

Reflex

One of Francis’s more successful integrations of this detailed exposition of a profession with the archetypal Francis racing character occurs in Reflex. Philip Nore is thirty years old, a moderately successful steeplechase jockey, and an amateur photographer. He is a quiet, agreeable man, fundamentally unwilling to make a fuss or fight—that is, a typical Francis Everyman. As an illegitimate child who never learned his father’s identity, Nore has had the usual rocky personal life: He was shuttled through a series of temporary foster homes by his drug-addicted mother and eventually was reared by a homosexual couple, one of whom (an eventual suicide) taught him about photography. At the beginning of the book, Nore hardly seems heroic—he occasionally agrees to lose a race on purpose to help his boss win bets—but by the end he finds himself stronger than he believed himself to be.

This change in character has been triggered by his discovery of a series of photographic puzzles left behind by a murdered photographer. They appear to be simply blank or botched negatives or plain sheets of paper, but by the application of somewhat esoteric photographic technology each can be developed, and each turns out to contain material that could be, and in some cases evidently has been, used for blackmail. One of the fundamental rules for the Francis hero is that knowledge involves responsibility, and Nore cannot simply ignore this evidence once he has found it. His possession of the photographic evidence is discovered, which poses a threat to the past and potential victims of the scheme to the extent that attempts are made on his life and he undergoes a brutal beating. (The suffering of severe physical abuse is a stock element in all Francis’s books, and the stoical refusal to give in to it a stock attribute of all Francis’s heroes.) Having broken each collarbone six times, his nose five times, and an arm, wrist, vertebra, and his skull once each, Francis is an authority on injury and pain, and in his novels such scenes are usually depicted in naturalistic detail. The sadistic damaging of Sid Halley’s already maimed left hand in Odds Against (1965) provides a particularly chilling example. More often than not, however, the hero exacts a fitting revenge on the villain, a staple means of satisfying an audience that has come to identify closely with the hero/narrator.

The blackmail proves to have been in a good cause—the victims are all criminals, and the extorted money goes to charity—and Nore himself blackmails the last victim (for evidence against drug dealers) and adopts the career of his murdered predecessor, becoming a professional photographer with a girlfriend, a publisher whom he has met during the course of his investigations, who acts as his agent. The fairly clear Freudian outlines of the plot are not stressed but rather are left for the reader to fill in imaginatively, as are the details of the romantic subplot. Francis usually avoids the overly neat endings common in popular fiction (the murdered photographer in whose footsteps Nore follows could easily have proved to be his real father) and never dwells on sexual scenes or sentimental romance. The fusion of the photography lesson with the complicated plot and the relatively complex character of the protagonist are typical of Francis’s better work.

Francis and the Racing World

The setting is always nearly as important as character and plot in these novels, and Francis’s intimate knowledge of the racing world enables him to work it into each book in a slightly different way, usually from the jockey’s point of view but also from that of a stable boy (For Kicks), a racing journalist (Forfeit), a horse owner’s caterer (Proof), or a complete outsider who is drawn into the racing milieu by the events of the mystery. Horse racing, unfamiliar to most readers, plays much the same role of informing and educating the audience as do the introduction of expertise from other professions and, especially in the later novels, the use of a variety of foreign locations, all of which Francis visits at length to ensure accuracy of detail. Francis and his wife traveled seventy-five thousand miles on Greyhound buses across America researching the setting of Blood Sport (1967).

Although some reviewers have complained that Francis’s villains tend to be evil to the point of melodrama, his other characters, minor as well as major, are generally well drawn and interesting, not the stock role players of much formula fiction. His plots are consistently suspenseful without relying on trick endings or unlikely twists, and his use of the horse-racing environment is imaginatively varied from one book to another.

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Dick Francis World Literature Analysis