Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3185
Although Dick Francis has only two sustained heroes, Sid Halley and Kit Fielding, he accomplishes the more difficult feat of creating a sustained subject: horse racing (especially steeple-chasing), an inherently appealing topic because of its action, color, and danger and the aura of glamour and glory left over from when courageous horses were an essential part of warfare.
Francis’s novels are told in the first person with strikingly similar underlying plot formulas: some unknown villain threatening the world of thoroughbred racing through skullduggery. The hero must uncover this villain’s identity, while, in turn, the power-hungry villain, often an aggressive social climber, takes increasingly drastic steps to protect his anonymity. Excruciating abuse only strengthens the resolve of Francis’s heroes. The villain’s identity usually comes as a big surprise, as it does in the classic English mystery novel. The fact that Francis reworks this same basic story in varied ways reveals his conservative nature. His heroes embody his own old-fashioned values of British fair play, hard work, loyalty, honesty, modesty, courtesy, diplomacy, monogamy, and patriotism. He believes that good must ultimately triumph over evil even though it may seem that good is always on the defensive and that evil sprouts a hundred heads for every one lopped off. Francis reassures readers that the world is a safe place where justice triumphs over injustice and truth over falsehood. As a consequence, over the years he has had to subject his amateur detectives to increasing mental and physical torment and make the triumph of justice a very near thing, because his long-term readers are too sure the heroes will come out all right in the end.
Francis was a prolific writer, and for many years he published an average of one novel a year, his research often assisted by his wife. His mysteries, in the classic English tradition, feature an amateur detective who becomes involved in a tight little world in which there is a strictly limited number of suspects. As an amateur detective, the hero is motivated by principle or by sympathy for the victim. Going against a deep grain of English culture, he is also egalitarian, moving easily between classes, admiring competences of different types, suggesting involvement in challenging tasks as a way out of delinquency, despising the selfish, the greedy, the inhumane. While most literary detectives follow the example of their earliest prototypes (Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) by working with their brains, Francis’s amateur detective heroes use their brains and instincts while engaged in continuous movement—running, driving cars at high speed, flying in airplanes, or riding thoroughbred horses over hurdles. Some of his heroes’ finest insights occur while they are being tortured, trampled, or burned. Francis thus marries the British cozy mystery and elements of the American hard-boiled detective tradition.
Francis suffered many broken bones and much physical pain during his racing career and enjoyed proving his ability to recuperate. His writing career began only because it became impossible for him to continue riding. His novels are full of regret for the lost days of thrills, cheering crowds, and the joys of victory, but they also capture the dark side of the sport. His professional detective, Sid Halley, lost the use of his arm when his jumper fell and a passing hoof sliced into him, and, in Under Orders, while making discreet inquiries into gambling and race fixing, his tenacity in the face of injury results in his Dutch girlfriend being beaten and then shot to derail his investigation.
Despite his reliance on the same underlying plot formula, Francis made each novel unique by creating a new hero with a new set of problems. He sets each story in a different locale and features varied facets of horse racing, but unlike some conventional series books, Francis’s provide the pleasure of familiar central figures and situations in uniquely interesting, individualized circumstances, often reflecting current problems in horse racing or social issues of the moment. There is never a sense of a new backdrop for its own sake; plot, problem, and setting are tightly integrated. Admirers of Dick Francis enjoy learning more and more about the complex world of horse racing, a microcosm including all social classes: the lowest touts and crooks, stable cleaners, horse handlers, jockeys, trainers, and cheap bettors, as well as the big plungers, wealthy breeders, filthy rich owners, dukes, duchesses, kings, and queens. Francis greatly valued competence and his heroes teach readers about their special expertise, whether it be computers, diplomacy, flying, winemaking, amateur photography, banking, accounting, gold mining, or filmmaking, mainly in England, but also in Norway, Canada, the Caribbean, Russia, and the United States. Wild Horses (1994), for example, brings to life the collaborative process of adapting a book to the screen that, at the same time, leads the film director to solve a cold case the screenplay builds on, just as his ingenuity as a toymaker enabled the hero of High Stakes (1975) to outwit opponents. Francis also admired bravery in the face of debilitating diseases or injuries, explaining how a myoelectric false hand works or a bone marrow transplant takes place. In a sense, Francis reflected changes in British culture, retaining a proper respect for British tradition and the venerable customs of the racing community while embracing a modern meritocracy based on technical competence.
Although his early novels emphasized action, Francis quickly realized that adult readers are more interested in action that proceeds from character. Consequently, over the years he has become so much more proficient at depicting the complexity and variety of human character that his novels have come to be considered mainstream rather than genre fiction. In his best novels, Francis manages his characters as a conductor does an orchestra. In Decider (1993), for example, he paints a mural of humanity, including children, young men and women, older men and women, and representatives of all social classes. Multiple and subtle motivations make his characters (heroes and villains) seem true to life. The hero of Decider, an example of Francis’s mature work, has multiple motives: sympathy for several people embroiled in a bitter family dispute, professional interest in the architectural problems involved with renovating the racetrack, financial interest as a shareholder, sexual attraction, and anger at the unknown villain who threatens him and his children, among various other motives.
At the same time, the other characters in Decider are driven by complex motivations of their own. One, desperately in need of money, wants the track converted to building lots. Another tries to protect the family name from disgrace. A traditionalist wants to preserve the racetrack in its pristine form. A modernist wants the Victorian structure transformed by the latest innovations into stainless steel and plastic.
Francis’s plots also became more complex and more intriguing as he became more successful. The descriptions of pain moved from the literal to the psychological: self-doubt, fear, obsession. Over the years he grew from a penniless, uneducated farm lad living in the muck of stables to a cosmopolitan millionaire at home on two continents and knighted by the queen of England, a writer capable of wry humor and complex psychological analysis. He received the Agatha Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
First published: 1962
Type of work: Novel
A jockey discovers that a small army of taxi drivers, directed by an unknown mastermind, is using intimidation, mayhem, and murder to fix horse races.
Dead Cert, Francis’s first published novel and his first attempt at fiction, is written in the first person from the point of view of a jockey turned amateur detective because wicked individuals intrude into his life and threaten to kill him. The novel is full of action and episodes in which the hero is subjected to incredible torture, from which he seems to recover with superhuman ease. Having established this prototype, Francis has hardly deviated from it in the novels he has published since. He has stated: “I write in the first person because that’s how I like to describe things. . . . As they’re written in the first person, a lot of each book describes what’s in the hero’s mind. It would be difficult to portray on screen.”
In Dead Cert, the hero is a young amateur jockey named Alan York, whose father is a South African multimillionaire. The book opens in the middle of a steeplechase at Maidenhead. York is trailing Admiral, ridden by his best friend Bill Davidson, when he sees the unbeatable horse, the dead certainty of the title, trip and his friend take a fatal fall. York is the only person who has seen a wire deliberately stretched across the top of a hurdle, clearly to prevent the favorite from winning.
The fact that York, in second place, becomes the winner attracts attention from the police, who also suspect that he is having an affair with Davidson’s wife. Francis provides a strong “push-pull” motivation for York to investigate the crime: to find out who was responsible for his friend’s death and to clear himself of suspicion. Although York is warned off his investigation and subjected to torture, he persists until he exposes the mastermind’s identity and destroys the entire ring of crooked taxi drivers.
York’s relationship with beautiful, aristocratic Kate Ellery-Penn helps him discover the mastermind’s identity. Dead Cert also established the convention of the love affair featured in most of Francis’s novels. His early descriptions of such relationships were inhibited and chaste. Despite his brilliant description of physical sensations, such as the pain of injured jockeys, Francis does not titillate readers with descriptions of torrid passions; however, his handling of sexual relationships has become more open in later works, as evidenced by the hero’s sensual yearning for his lover in Under Orders.
Critics have praised the fine writing in the long sequence of closing chapters in which the hero rides a thoroughbred horse across the English countryside, jumping fences and hedges and darting through motor traffic in an effort to elude the murderous taxi drivers who are receiving radio orders from the criminal mastermind.
First published: 1968
Type of work: Novel
The world of horse racing journalism is being corrupted by crooked gamblers who intimidate owners, trainers, and jockeys and who sometimes kill or cripple favored horses.
Forfeit, published six years after Dead Cert, represents a leap forward in Francis’s craft, with more emphasis on characterization and less on action for action’s sake. Largely because of its greater realism and stronger characterization, Forfeit won the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award, bringing his work to the attention of a wider American audience.
The plot is based on the system of wagering in England before the introduction of pari-mutuels. Bookies would set the odds on each horse based on the number of bets they were taking in. If a horse were scratched before the race, the bets would be forfeited to the bookie, hence the title.
In Forfeit, a gambler who owns a string of betting parlors exploits this archaic system by making sure that heavy favorites fail to appear or at least fail to win. This unknown kingpin enhances his profits by bribing turf journalists to praise certain horses so enthusiastically that bettors heavily back them, only to later forfeit their wagers. Through bribery or intimidation of jockeys, trainers, and owners, the gambling czar makes sure that certain horses do not win.
Hero James Tyrone, a former jockey who is now a journalist, like Francis himself, becomes suspicious when an alcoholic colleague warns him against selling his integrity as a writer and dies shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances.
Tyrone’s wife Elizabeth is incapacitated by polio and can only breathe by means of a mechanical respirator. As a result of her fraility, she cannot have normal marital relations. Tyrone remains devoted to her in spite of this deprivation and the demands that her condition impose. Since he cannot afford full-time care, he must act as her nurse and write his column at the same time.
His sexual impulses involve him with an attractive biracial woman, Gail, but he feels guilty about his infidelity. This triangle gives Forfeit a more mature, more dramatic impact than Francis’s previous books.
The villain and his crew of thugs try all their tactics on Tyrone, but as a typical Francis hero, this courageous, idealistic jockey turned reporter refuses to quit. Eventually he gives up his illicit liaison, exposes the race-fixing racket in print, and wins against the sadistic mastermind.
In Forfeit, Francis perfected the kind of plot line he was to follow with variations in later novels. An honest man connected in some way with the world of horse racing turns amateur detective in order to expose an unknown mastermind who is spreading corruption. The detective-hero is motivated by the desire to see good triumph over evil, not by financial gain.
First published: 1993
Type of work: Novel
An architect becomes entangled with a family of temperamental, sometimes violent aristocrats fighting over whether to renovate, rebuild, or demolish their historic racetrack.
Decider shows Francis at the peak of his form. There is plenty of action and suspense, but his complexity of characterization explains why critics regard him as a serious writer. Like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and John le Carré, Francis has transcended his genre by treating it with the same scrupulous care customarily given to mainstream fiction. Francis has been honored by fellow detective-fiction writers because he has helped elevate their profession for critics and the public.
The amateur-detective, first-person narrator of Decider is Lee Morris, an architect who happens to own a small interest in the historic old Stratton Park racecourse. The major shareholders are the self-willed, eccentric, outspoken, snobbish members of an aristocratic family who have conflicting ideas about what should be done with the facility.
Francis’s heroes invariably face family problems or personal handicaps that affect their behavior. In Decider, the hero endures a loveless marriage, cares for five rambunctious children, and copes with the problems caused by the Stratton family. His concern for his children’s safety, his Achilles’ heel, almost gets him killed.
Interestingly, Francis’s worldview has widened over the years, with his increasing maturity, fame, and prosperity and with the world itself changing since 1962. Later novels such as Decider are full of Americanisms, such as “wimpish,” “rough trade,” “look-see,” “max,” “the slammer,” “Peter Pan syndrome,” “sob stuff,” and “trashed.” His heroes and heroines now dine in restaurants that serve haute cuisine and vintage champagne. He writes about the upper class with the assurance of one accustomed to moving in such circles.
The hero of Decider is not a member of the working class like the jockey-detective in Dead Cert or the overworked, financially harassed journalist-detective in Forfeit; Lee Morris owns real estate and shares of a racetrack. Decider sounds modern and sophisticated, whereas Dead Cert reads like an old-fashioned English detective novel, with a chaste love relationship leading toward marriage (“Kate’s kisses were sweet and virginal”), and quaint British expressions such as “Rum looking cove,” possibly incomprehensible to speakers of non-British varieties of the language. Alan York of Dead Cert moves in a world of jockeys, taxi drivers, bartenders, and other working-class types; Lee Morris of Decider moves with ease in the upper reaches of bourgeois society.
Stratton, determined to destroy the stately racetrack so that it may be sold to tract housing developers, tries sabotage, intimidation, murder, kidnapping, and torture to get his way, but Morris, a typical Francis hero, becomes tenacious under pressure. Although Stratton’s henchman plants dynamite and causes extensive wreckage, Morris ultimately exposes the mastermind and saves the racetrack, an ornate Victorian structure that might be said to symbolize Francis’s love for the world of horse racing.
Come to Grief
First published: 1995
Type of work: Novel
No one believes Sid Halley when he maintains that his close friend, a fellow jockey much beloved in the racing world, has committed a series of atrocious crimes.
The title Come to Grief sums up what happens throughout the book, as disease, injury, and negative publicity bring humans and animals to grief. The dominant grief is perpetrated by a serial mutilator, who chops off the forefeet of valuable thoroughbred horses, much beloved of owners but uninsured, and that of the pony of an impressionable child. The novel brings back champion jockey turned private investigator Sid Halley, who appeared in Odds Against (1965) and Whip Hand (1979), and who sees in these injuries a mirror image of his own physical loss of a forearm, hacked off by a sadistic fiend. The nightmare he faces—the loss of his good hand—proves a near reality when his longtime friend, Ellis Quint, in the grip of his criminal obsession, sadistically assaults Halley with the weapon he had used on defenseless horses.
Quint has won British hearts with his fearless rides as a jockey and with the heartwarming stories he creates as a television host (including a particularly moving piece on a child with leukemia, whose pony is one of the victims), yet his deeds bring his disbelieving family to grief. Quint’s father mutilates a horse to provide his son an alibi and then tries to kill Halley; his mother commits suicide. The gentlemanly, kindly facade Quint projects hides a lust for power and for blood, but while Halley struggles to expose Quint’s dark side, he must deal with character assassination by a local newspaper, rejection by the racing community, and public opinion that turns even those he seeks to help against him. Those who fall under Quint’s influence come to grief as well, with Owen Yorkshire giving vent to a murderous temper, and Lord Tilepit discovering that he has colluded with a murderer.
Winner of the Silver Dagger Award from Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association, Come to Grief provides a satisfying study of the slogging footwork of detection, the interviewing of witnesses and checking of alibis, but it is also a powerful psychological study of friendship, what leads to it, and the difficulty of walking away from it. Halley struggles with his perceptions; his instincts tell him that his friend, Quint, shows up at the crime scene or is connected to the crime scene too many times for it to be coincidence, and yet Quint is a former jockey like himself, someone Halley thinks he understands as deeply as he understands himself. When the evidence builds until it is irrefutable in his mind and he must turn over his discoveries to the police, Halley grieves for the loss of his friend. At the end, he understands the dark forces that drive Quint and sees behind the madness and corruption some glimmers of the man he once held in such high esteem: Quint could have left Halley armless, and he pulled back from the deed; Quint could have let his father kill Halley, but he killed his father instead. Thus, Halley grieves for what has been lost—the friendship, the bright potential, and the lingering comradeship—despite the grave perils threatened.
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