Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828
Dick Francis 1920–
(Born Richard Stanley Francis) Welsh-born English novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Francis's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 22, and 42.
A former steeplechase jockey, Francis is famous for his suspense novels as well as his championship career. His thrillers usually focus on corruption in the world of horse racing and feature a hero struggling through various physical and psychological obstacles to return order to that world. Francis produces one novel per year, most of which are bestsellers. He has a strong popular following and most of his work is critically acclaimed.
Francis comes from a long line of Welsh horsemen. His father was a former jockey and a successful trainer. Although his father discouraged his interest in becoming a jockey, Francis signed up with a stable at the age of eighteen. Francis, however, did not have an opportunity to race before the outbreak of World War II. He became an Air Force pilot, flying Spitfires and then bombers, before returning to England to become a jockey in 1946. He won between 350 and 400 races and suffered from a variety of injuries during his career. He was England's champion jockey in 1954, and in 1957 he was jockey for the Queen Mother's horse Devon Loch in the Grand National. The horse stumbled in the last stretch and was unable to recover. After this great disappointment, Francis retired from his career as a steeplechase jockey. A publisher convinced Francis to write his autobiography, The Sport of Queens (1957), while he was still well known. The book was commercially successful and led him to write racing articles for the London Sunday Express for the next sixteen years. An admirer of the popularity of mystery novels, Francis always wanted to write one himself. When Francis's wife became worried about the state of their finances, she finally convinced him to try. He wrote Dead Cert (1962) which was accepted by a publisher and became a bestseller. Two years later he wrote Nerve (1964) and has continued at a pace of one novel per year since then. He writes from January to May on the balcony of his Ft. Lauderdale apartment, and for the rest of the year he and his wife travel and conduct research for his next novel. Francis has won several literary awards, including Edgar Allan Poe Awards for For-feit (1968) and Whip Hand (1979), and his work is among the most commercially successful in the crime and mystery genre.
All of Francis's books follow a similar formula: they are written in the first person; the protagonist is a male in his 20s or 30s with some connection to horse racing; and he is drawn into an intrigue caused by a villain whom he works to expose and defeat by the end of the novel. There are a variety of physical and mental obstacles to overcome along the way. Most of Francis's earlier work centers on the horseracing world. Dead Cert, his first novel, is the story of a jockey who uncovers and eliminates a race-fixing scheme. Forfeit is about a racing journalist whose invalid wife discovers a bookmaking scheme. While horse racing is always part of the story, even if only peripheral to the action, Francis also presents a new topic with each new novel. Subjects of Francis novels have included flying in Flying Finish (1966), gold mining in Smokescreen (1972), art in In the Frame (1976), technology in Twice Shy (1981), high finance in Banker (1982), winemaking in Proof (1985), and the gem business in Straight (1989). Francis' heroes are men of conscience who uphold values of justice and integrity. Francis asserts that his protagonists are not strictly autobiographical, but they are men he admires and he never makes them do anything he wouldn't do himself. Francis's experience as a steeplechase jockey exposed him to extensive pain and injury. He uses his knowledge of injury to subject his heroes to a variety of physical torments either through racing spills or attacks by villains. While Francis's earlier novels are filled with physical torture, his later work shifts its focus to the psychological aspects of pain and mental torture.
Critics often point out the influence of Francis's earlier careers on his writing. Reviewers compare the skillful pacing of his narratives to the skillful pacing of racing a horse. His work as a journalist helped him develop a succinct prose which critics praise. Francis is also known for his well-rounded characters, skill at suspense, and the authenticity of his dialogue and setting. Many critics find great humor in Francis's fiction, asserting that it provides relief when things get too grim. Reviewers disagree about the place of class in Francis's books. Several critics accuse him of being too aristocratic, but others assert that his heroes come from all classes. Class conflict is inherent in most of his novels. Some reviewers complain that Francis novels are overly violent and formulaic, but still praise his fast-moving and well-researched plots.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 120
The Sport of Queens: The Autobiography of Dick Francis (autobiography) 1957
Dead Cert (novel) 1962
Nerve (novel) 1964
For Kicks (novel) 1965
Odds Against (novel) 1965
Best Racing and Chasing Stories 2 vols. [editor; with John Welcome] (short stories) 1966–69
Flying Finish (novel) 1966
Blood Sport (novel) 1967
Forfeit (novel) 1968
Enquiry (novel) 1969
The Racing Man's Bedside Book [editor; with John Welcome] 1969
Rat Race (novel) 1970
Bonecrack (novel) 1971
Smokescreen (novel) 1972
Slay-Ride (novel) 1973
Knockdown (novel) 1974
High Stakes (novel) 1975
In the Frame (novel) 1976
Risk (novel) 1977
Trial Run (novel) 1978
Whip Hand (novel) 1979
Reflex (novel) 1980
Twice Shy (novel) 1981
Banker (novel) 1982
The Danger (novel) 1983
Break In (novel) 1985
Proof (novel) 1985
Lester: The Official Biography (biography) 1986
Bolt (novel) 1987
Hot Money (novel) 1987
The Edge (novel) 1988
Straight (novel) 1989
Longshot (novel) 1990
Comeback (novel) 1991
Driving Force (novel) 1992
Decider (novel) 1993
Wild Horses (novel) 1994
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SOURCE: "Very Yoff-Yoff," in Punch Weekly, Vol. 291, October 15, 1986, p. 55.
[In the following review, Pitts criticizes Francis's Bolt for being snobbish and implausible.]
My favourite jump-jockey is a minute little fellow with a face like a pruned-up parrot and a voice to match. He's so small that he has to have a leg up on to the barstool; but when he gets there, he's good for many a yarn.
There was the drunken starter at Chepstow who fell off his stand and took off on the favourite's rump; and the semi-delirious rider who took advantage of a St. John's Ambulance lady in the back of a blood-wagon at Newton Abbot (and pleaded concussion); or the desolate, newly-gelded favourite who stopped to graze in a steeplechase at Fontwell.
He retired at the end of last season and the beer which he once declined, has given him a tiny, pimple-like paunch. He says he has broken every bone in his body in his time but there seems to be little mental deterioration—except, maybe, for a mild amnesia of the wallet.
"I suppose you wouldn't care to write my life story." he asked me the other day.
"It'd make great reading." I told him. "But Dick Francis has got the jockey business well sewed up."
I was somewhat taken aback by the fury that followed.
"Bloody Dick bloody Francis." he almost shouted. "What does he bloody know about bloody racing?"
I reminded him of our hero's record of distinction as an amateur jump jockey.
"Oh, he was all right in the saddle but his books … he's a bloody yoff-yoff, that's his problem."
(Racing parlance. A yoff-yoff (toff) is the owner. Trainers are guvnors, stewards are right bastards).
More calmly, he claimed that Dick Francis was a snob who never wrote sympathetically about the real racing workers like the lads and lasses and apprentices who did the mucking out while the guvnors swilled champagne with the yoff-yoffs.
I saw his point. Francis does tend to indulge the higher echelons of the great fraternity of the turf—but, to be fair, most of his villains come from that strata, and nasty villains they are, too.
Then came Bolt. I stretched myself out on a beach in Cyprus the other day to enjoy the latest Dick Francis and found myself coming rapidly to the conclusion that my friend was right. This is a very snobbish book and, what's more, it is a very disappointing 25th novel—dead cert though it will be in the bookshops.
Without wishing to give away the plot (though, Lord knows, I don't think I could ever sell it myself), there is this archetypal Dick Francis hero, a jockey who rides for a wealthy countess whose husband is being threatened by a grossly implausible business partner. He (the jockey) has a fiancée called Danielle and she looks like leaving him for a wealthy prince.
Somehow, between riding countless winners at Newbury and the like, the jockey sorts out the countess's problems, gets the girl and disposes of the villain.
To enjoy this book, even the most devout Francis fan will need not just to suspend belief—he'll need to stretch it from Aintree to breakfast-time.
I mean to say, here is a villain who makes the most open and evil threats against a family, who tries to murder the aforesaid prince (you've just got to believe the way our Dick gets him out of that one) and yet no one seems to think of calling in the police like you and I would. No, they are happy to rely on this obsequious, somewhat toady-like, jump-jock who is too clever by half, anyway.
Come to think of it, there's no real climax, either. If there is, I must say I've known more suspenseful moments on Playschool.
Sorry (and I speak as a founder member of the DF appreciation society) but Bolt seems to have died under Dick Francis, just like Devon Loch died under him in the National.
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SOURCE: "Knacker's Yard," in New Statesman, Vol. 112, No. 2903, November 14, 1986, pp. 28-9.
[In the following review, Kimberley criticizes Francis's Bolt and asserts that thriller writers are not allowed to "retire gracefully" like old race horses when they "no longer cut the mustard."]
When old race horses no longer cut the mustard, they're allowed to retire gracefully. Not so thriller writers—which brings me to Dick Francis. Bolt is his 25th racetracker thriller and, like many of its predecessors, it's taken up with wealth, opulence and lineage. Kit Fielding, a well-bred jockey not at all like those you see interviewed on TV, rides horses for a princess whose family's vast but honourable business is threatened by an uncouth partner. Fielding sees off this loudmouth, and any other villains, while still managing to ride a few winners, take a few falls.
As you might expect from a man whose autobiography is called The Sport of Queens, there's little time spent with the lowly punter who, in the real world, makes the jockey's efforts meaningful. In fact, horses and courses are incidental colouring, endearing to those who like racing, off-putting to the rest of us. What matters is protecting the lovely princess and her money. Fielding shows a commendable desire to prevent the weapons industry from sullying that wealth—not, though, because guns in themselves are to be shunned, but simply to ensure that no terrorists are armed out of the family's trading. Terrorists, alter all, are unprincipled lunatics whose actions are merely self-serving. Ironic, then, that throughout the novel Fielding insists that the police should not be called in—as he says, he has taken justice into his own hands. Isn't that one definition of terrorism?
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SOURCE: "Dick Francis And the Racer's Edge," in Washington Post Book World, March 15, 1987, p. 9.
[In the following review, Hillerman asserts that while readers generally do not read Francis's work for his plots, with Bolt "Francis finally uses a plot so flawed that it ruins the book."]
Admirers of Dick Francis don't read him for his plots. We read him for his precise use of the language, for rounded characters, for his skill at suspense and for the authentic trip he gives us through the world of steeplechase racing. When he gives us an outstanding story line, as in Blood Sport, Odds Against, In the Frame, etc., it is a bonus. Usually it isn't the plot that keeps us reading long into the night.
In Bolt, unfortunately, Francis finally uses a plot so flawed that it ruins the book.
We deal here with a cast even more aristocratic than usual in the expensive world of horses that Francis likes to explore. Roland de Brescou, the target of the dastardly deeds, is half owner of the French industrial conglomerate which bears his family's name. He is husband of Princess Casalia. Prince Listi is wooing his niece. And as Prince Listi reminds us, one of the useful things about being so well connected "is that if one seriously asks, one is seldom refused. Another is that one knows and has met a great many people in useful positions." Such powerful folks can "simply set a few wheels in motion." Yet in Bolt we must believe that such powerful people can't get police action even when a roomful of them witness a felony.
A Frenchman named Nanterre owns the other half of de Brescou's industry. He wants to enter the armaments business and needs de Brescou's signature on pertinent papers. De Brescou considers the venture dishonorable. Nanterre storms past his butler into his parlor, makes threats and finally, "produced a black and businesslike pistol. With a gliding step he reached the princess and pressed the end of the barrel against her temple, standing behind her and holding her head firmly with his left hand under the chin.
'Now,' he said gratingly to de Brescou, 'sign the form.'"
This assault is done before the eyes of four witnesses, three of whom are hostile to the culprit. Do these people, all of whom have the power "to set a few wheels in motion," have Nanterre arrested, prosecuted and deported? Nope, They call upon Kit Fielding, who rides for the Princess. Why don't they call the police?
It seems Princess Casalia's lawyer had called the police earlier after Nanterre had threatened her at the track. No crime had been committed so the police weren't interested. But now (on page 53) we have felonious assault with threats of more to come. For the next 250 pages Bolt struggles under the burden of our impatience, and it increases as the Princess's horses are slaughtered and an attempt is made on the Prince's life. Even prose as clean as Francis' can't hold us when we're wondering why these dolts don't go to the police and sign a complaint.
Bolt asks us to suspend more disbelief than we can manage. But it also contains some of the skill that earned the author fame. The relationship between the lovelorn Fielding and a girl having second thoughts about their involvement is handled with artistry. Aware he is losing her, not knowing why, Fielding leaves her at her bedroom door, remembering a goodnight kiss which "had again been a defense, not a promise." When he finally blurts out the question of what's gone wrong, he instantly withdraws it and scrambles out of his car to avoid the answer. The answer, typically of Francis, is exactly right. The racing scenes which Francis uses to illuminate the character of his rider/hero are tense and lyrical as always. Fielding is perfectly drawn as a decent man who loves what he does, and the animals he rides. Here he is by the body of a horse that had gallantly recovered from a stumble in an earlier race.
"I put a hand down to touch Col's foreleg, and felt its rigidity, its chill. The foreleg that had saved us from disaster at Ascot, that had borne all his weight."
If you haven't read Francis, do so. But don't begin with Bolt.
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SOURCE: A review of Bolt, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, p. 13.
[In the following review, Lochte praises Francis's Bolt, noting the exceptional dialogue and faultless storytelling.]
Steeplechase jockey-turned-author Dick Francis' last racing tale, Break In, introduced us to a self-reliant rider named Kit Fielding who had to deal with a violent family feud that threatened him and his twin sister, a budding romance with a headstrong young woman and the navigation of several rather difficult races. The first of many surprises greeting us in Francis' new tale is the discovery that there is an Act Two to Kit's life.
Though many of the novelist's central characters are jockeys or former jockeys, he has gone out of his way to eschew series books, probably in an effort to make the point that, though they may share some common physical traits, jockeys are as individually unique as any other professionals.
Bolt is less a sequel than a continuation of the original book, and yet Break In is not required reading. With an almost miraculous economy of words, Francis swiftly sums up as much information as is needed from the earlier book, while simultaneously untying the ends that had been so neatly gathered. As Kit explains; "Winning the lady, back in November, had been unexpected, an awakening, deeply exciting … happy. Keeping her, in the frosts before spring, was proving the merry devil. My much-loved dark-haired young woman seemed frighteningly to be switching her gaze from a steeplechase jockey (myself) to an older, richer sophisticate of superior lineage…." Returning also is the malevolent Maynard Allardeck, whose family has despised the Fieldings for generations. Kit cleverly devised a stratagem to keep him at bay in the last book, but Allardeck has not taken his defeat gracefully and, as a racing steward, is in a position to cause trouble.
And there is a powerful new villain, Henri Nanterre, who will stop at nothing, apparently, to convince his partner, Kit's prospective uncle-in-law, to convert their construction company into an armament empire. First he threatens the partner's wife; when Kit checks that challenge, he ups the ante. The wife's championship horses, Kit's mounts, are brutally slain by a bolt gun, a captive-bullet weapon that is supposed to provide a merciful death for animals in pain. And when the jockey's fiancé and even her "older richer sophisticate" are threatened, Kit is forced to devise a particularly devious plan to spike Nanterre's guns.
Francis has said in interviews that his tales aren't thrillers. He prefers to call them "adventure stories." None of them proves his point better than Bolt. The sport of kings. The wealthy and tilled reacting to stress. The setting of traps to catch evildoers rather than resorting to the police. This is not exactly the stuff that turns the bleak world of John Le Carre so chillingly cold and gray. Actually, it is closer in spirit to the capers that kept "The Saint," Simon Templar, in champagne and caviar for so many decades. Admittedly, the characterizations are a bit sketchier than the author has settled for in the past. And his lead is more idealistically heroic—dashing, wealthy, clever and a great deal more confident—than others who have worn the Francis colors. But the dialogue—from tough talk to drawing-room banter—rings entertainingly true and bristles with edgy energy. The storytelling is faultless. And the track is so fast, it seems as if we have scarcely cleared the starting gale when we are bolting past the finish line. That's how it goes when you ride with a champion who knows the course.
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SOURCE: "Of Heroes And Horses," in Washington Post Book World, February 21, 1988, pp. 1, 14.
[In the following review, Weeks discusses Francis's Hot Money, focusing on the themes of horses and heroism which are found throughout Francis's work.]
Dick Francis' mysteries have been published every spring for more than 20 years. They come out in England the previous fall and many of his fans just can't wait those extra few months. Winter travelers last year returned to Washington loaded down with British editions of Hot Money. Soon the word was out among aficionados: "A good Francis."
And good it is, up there with Whip Hand and Forfeit. It is awesome how this 67-year-old former steeplechase jockey (he rode for the Queen Mother until 1957) produces an annual novel of unrivalled consistency and craft. Each one explores a new area of knowledge—ranging from artificial limbs to wine-making—that becomes part of the fabric of the story.
At the center of Francis' 26th thriller are a five-times-married international gold speculator, Malcolm Pembroke, and Ian, his son by his second wife. Ian is an amateur jockey with dreams of turning professional.
Francis once said that his heroes "are the sort of chaps I'd like to meet" and Ian is exactly the kind of young man most of us would love to meet: independent yet responsible, kind yet courageous, full of the moral fiber essential to the kind of chap Dick Francis admires.
So gold bullion trading (at which Malcolm is spectacularly successful) and steeplechase riding are the setting for Hot Money and they make a sexy combination. When Malcolm gets interested in his son's avocation, the two come satisfyingly together. Money is a more accessible central gimmick to most readers than the rather technical plastic firearms or humane killing devices that worked less successfully in last year's Bolt. Spare gold is also very handy in the horse racing business.
The Pembrokes are not a large and happy family. In fact, they could be the Medici in modern dress. Malcolm's riches have in different ways distorted the lives of his children and their spouses. Ian, a personable bachelor with the usual Franciscan reluctance to commit himself to a serious relationship, is unexpectedly presented with a double task: to keep his father from being murdered and to discover which of his siblings or relatives may have been behind the near-miss car accident or the home-made bomb that destroyed the family home.
As his five marriages might indicate, Malcolm was no boy's dream father. He quarreled violently with Ian over his fifth wife, but even before that Ian tells us, "In a totally confused chaotic upbringing I'd spent scattered unhappy periods with my bitter mother but had mostly been passed from wife to wife in my father's house as part of the furniture or fittings, treated by him throughout with the same random but genuine affection he gave to his dogs."
Despite this inauspicious history, affection and trust reawakens between Ian and his father, haltingly with setbacks, as they are drawn together by danger. "It struck me that he really needed to hear me say I loved him, so although he might scoff at the actual words, and despite the conditioned inhibitions of my upbringing, I said, feeling that desperate situations needed desperate remedies, "You're a great father-… and … er … I love you." Ian's handling of the shortcomings and problems of his seven half-siblings is enviably laced with compassion and understanding.
To handle this large and intertwined cast of characters without thoroughly confusing his readers, Francis uses a tried and true technique: he introduces a depressed but highly professional private detective by the name of Norman West to investigate the movements and circumstances of everyone in the Pembroke family. West's flat but conscientious reports to Ian fill in many necessary details and his occasional asides provide a wonderful deadpan viewpoint, taking us briefly outside the family. Of Mrs. Ursula Pembroke, the wife of one of Ian's half brothers, he reports "Mrs. U unhappy woman but wouldn't unbutton. Loyal. Any wife of Mr. G likely to be unhappy (my opinion)…. Does she believe killing Mr. Pembroke could solve her Problems? Does she believe if Mr. G. becomes richer it will make things right? I could tell her it won't. End of inquiry."
Best-selling suspense fiction relies on many different elements to creep into the hearts and pocketbooks of readers. Sex and violence are standards—some of the latter but not much of the former in Francis—but what is unusual about his immense appeal is that all his books are skilful, elegant variations on a theme of horses and heroism. But they are no more repetitious or monotonous than are a set of Bach variations. We care about his heroes because they are worth caring about. (I'd definitely like to have Ian Pembroke on my side in a crisis.) They represent the best in human nature while struggling convincingly with their own shortcomings and weaknesses. They are never too perfect to identify with and don't win all their races.
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SOURCE: "Dick Francis' Latest a Good Bet," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 6, 1988, p. 6.
[In the following review, Busch describes Francis's Hot Money as a thriller with enough suspense to keep the reader interested.]
"Hot Money," Ian Pembroke explains to his father, consists of "bets made by people in the know. People with inside information." Ian, a horse trainer and amateur jockey, is bodyguarding millionaire Dad, Malcolm—all over their native England, and in parts of Australia and America—because someone is trying to kill the irascible man who by Ian and outrageous to his seven other surviving children and their four surviving mothers, Malcolm's ex-wives.
His fifth has been murdered as the novel opens. It's a fine beginning, in Ian's voice: "I intensely disliked my father's fifth wife, but not to the point of murder." Father and son, estranged for years, become reconciled—become friends—as Ian labors to keep his father alive. For of all his children, Malcolm (their difficulties notwithstanding) trusts Ian. So do we. He's tough, resourceful, unselfish and, as Francis proves in some of his customarily magically stirring racing descriptions, a brave and able rider.
To Ian's credit, he loves his nasty family—the drunkard, the fat failed poet, the brain-damaged accident victim, the shrewish aerobics teacher, and the others. They are crass, small and selfish in their lust for Malcolm's money. And it's clear, as Ian demonstrates, that one of them killed Wife Five, and is bent on killing Ian and Malcolm.
It's really a thriller, not a mystery. The central "clue" is Ian's insight into his family; a secondary clue might be considered unfair by detective-story purists, though it's part of a novel that yields enough fun to forestall complaints.
The novel is really more about money than racing, though its title and central metaphor derive from the horses. Ian is one of those "people with inside information" derived from studying his weak, well-loved, money-hungry kin. He cracks the case as Francis gives us ample suspense, a plenitude of venalities, lots on information on home-made bombs, and perhaps more caviar and champagne than we can digest.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462
SOURCE: "Reverse Lear," in Time, Vol. 131, No. 12, March 21, 1988, p. 78.
[In the following review, Skow praises Francis's Hot Money for its believable characterizations and whodunit puzzle.]
Psychology is kept decently out of sight in most of the 25 horsey thrillers listed on the op-title page of Dick Francis' new entertainment. It is what goes on—wheels turning in the murky unconscious, and all that—when one of his characters, caught in some awkwardness, says "er …" That unmistakable Francis "er …" has got author and readers past many a potentially mushy spot and on to the good part, where the hero is gonked by hired gorillas or injected with horse tranquilizer, and then wakes up, aware that something is wrong, inside a locked steamer trunk.
The author's formula has become too predictable, however, and Hot Money is especially welcome because it offers a variation. No steamer trunks this trip, though as usual there are a few "ers" in the mixture, for flavor. Only the locked room of the mind (and the odd explosion) vex the hero, an amateur steeplechase rider named Ian Pembroke, as he puzzles out who is trying to murder his rich and autocratic father.
There is no lack of candidates. Malcolm Pembroke, a hugely successful gold speculator, has shed several repellent wives. Recently someone knocked off his loathsome fifth, presumably to keep her from inheriting the family bundle. There are nine children, including Ian, and assorted spouses and their children. All are neurotic, vengeful and desperate for money, because Malcolm refuses to sweeten their small trust funds. The author's scheme neatly turns the King Lear plot inside out, observing the wreckage strewn about the heath when an aging tyrant fails to hand over power and wealth to his children.
Ah, but who is playing Goneril and Regan, and who Cordelia? Could this be one of those Orient Express situations in which everyone is the murderer? Everyone has a motive; no question about that. Malcolm goads his whining brood without mercy, taking care to be seen splashing money and champagne in all directions but theirs as he buys racehorses and lolls about the world like a pasha.
Then his house blows up, and he is made to realize that his goading has succeeded. Somebody wants him dead, and may well get his wish. Or hers. Now what? He goes on the run, of course, but flamboyant Malcolm has no talent for keeping his head down. Author Francis is sometimes faulted for wooden characterizations, but here he is believable and chilling as he takes on the pathology of a large, mutually destructive family. The whodunit puzzle at the book's core is unusually good, and its solution, like those the late Ross Macdonald used to devise, takes into account wounds dealt out and suffered decades before.
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SOURCE: "Finding Intrigue Wherever He Goes," in U.S. News and World Report, Vol. 104, No. 12, March 28, 1988, p. 56.
[Below, Sanoff presents Francis' remarks about his work and the research he does for his novels.]
I write mysteries because I like reading them. I would pick them up at railway stations and airports—and one day said to my wife Mary: "I'm going to write a mystery someday. These Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace books seem to be doing all right." At the time, I was writing about racing for the Sunday Express, but it wasn't quite so lucrative as my career as a successful jockey: There weren't so many dollars coming in. Still, the newspaper work taught me how to write—what words to leave out. After a few years, Mary said: "You always said you were going to write a novel. Now's the time. We don't want to lower our standard of living, and we've got two sons to educate, and the car is beginning to knock. You had better start."
I began in early 1961 and finished Dead Cert sometime in the fall. The publishers had it about 10 days and said they would publish it straightaway. It was a great day. The next book, Nerve, came out two years later. They made me write two in 1965. God, it was a hard year! There's been one every year since. The recent ones have got a little bit longer. Since I've given up the newspaper work, there's more time to spend on them.
I always start writing a story in January and finish in May. But I start thinking about what I will write months before. I watch the news a lot and get ideas from it. In fact, I've got an idea for my next book from something that has happened in the news recently, but I'm not going to say what it is other than that it involves the press and probably will be set in the United States.
The next step in the process is the research. I researched the novel I'm now writing, The Edge, while I was on a book-promotion trip across Canada last autumn. After I got back home and put quite a few notes down, my wife and I went back to spend time around train yards and went into the engines with the drivers. The main character works for the Racecourse Security Service in England. One of the characters the service is keeping a very close eye on is coming to Canada to take part in an international railway tour taking horses to run at tracks around the country.
In The Edge, as in all the others, I know before I start writing what the main crime is going to be and who the culprits and victims are, but the subplots develop as I write. My crooks are an amalgam of a number of people. As for my heroes, I won't say they're autobiographical, but I wouldn't ask them to do anything I wouldn't do myself.
The opening passage and paragraphs take a long time to write because I like to capture my audience straightaway when they open the book and look in. When I'm at home—I live in Fort Lauderdale now—I write about 4 or 5 hours every day, sitting outside on the veranda with a notebook. I find it easier to write over here because not so many people know my telephone number and my whereabouts. Back in England, I can never get through a day without someone telephoning and wanting to know about my social or racing life.
My wife and I travel about the world quite a lot, and are endlessly saying: "You know, that would be a good idea for the next story." Wherever I go, I try to use the scenes I see. About 16 months ago, we went to the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita in California. Then we flew to Australia. We got there just in time for the Melbourne Cup on the following Tuesday. I wrote Hot Money around some of these places.
Before I wrote Blood Sport, which was set in America, my wife and I went on Greyhound buses and traveled 7,500 miles in three weeks. The people we met around Chicago were foreigners to those who got on the bus near Phoenix: It was like going across Europe and meeting a Greek on one part of the trip and a Belgian on the other.
As we travel, Mary takes a lot of photographs of ordinary, everyday scenes that might be of help in writing. In Oslo, for instance, we'll see the blue buses going down the road, and she'll take a picture. And she'll photograph telephone kiosks about the road, so we know that they use green boxes in Prague. We've got a big library of photographs.
Mary is my one and only editor: If I can get something past her, I hope I can get it past the publishers. In fact, the books ought to be written by "Dick and Mary Francis." But I had a name to start with, and so I have carried it on like that.
Mary loves doing research. She even look up flying for Flying Finish. I had been a pilot during the war, but by the time I wrote the book, regulations had changed a lot. I kept going to the local flying-training school at Oxford to get up-to-date. They said: "Why don't you start flying again? In a few hours, you'll soon get your license back." I didn't have time, so the fellow at the school said, "Well, send your wife along for a few lessons, and she'll help." Mary got bitten by the bug. My accountant talked us into buying three airplanes, and we started a little air-charter business. And that was the background for the book Rat Race.
Mary took up painting for another book, In the Frame, but she wasn't a born artist, so she didn't keep that up. We both spent a lot of time at the laboratories at UCLA to learn all about pharmacology for Banker. For the book I called Proof, we spent 30 years researching and drinking wine. Writing is hard work, but it's great fun doing the research.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452
SOURCE: A review of Hot Money, in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 1988, p. 156.
[In the following excerpt. DeAndrea praises Francis's Hot Money.]
Last column, I had a few words to say about one of those writers whose mystery-story career is a cause of anguish, someone who has to "write down" to the mystery audience, who is constrained by the plot requirements of the form from doing something Better and Finer.
I kept thinking of this guy as I was reading Hot Money, the new Dick Francis novel, which should be out in its American edition just about the time you read this. Now, Francis is someone who adds restrictions of his own to the requirements of the thriller. The books are always first-person. There is always a horse-racing connection, however tenuous. The protagonist is always a man, young to middle-aged, with a trace of melancholy to his character.
And it doesn't constrain him a bit. Dick Francis's books are always filled with believable characters doing things for reasons that make sense in the context of the book. There is frequently violence in a Dick Francis novel, but it is never of the "Let's go for the gross-out" kind. As I have said before, it is there to show the courage and loyalty of the protagonist.
In Hot Money, there is a lot less violence than usual for a Francis novel. A lot less physical violence, at least. There is plenty of emotional violence—cruelty in the family, the most exquisite kind. Who knows better which of your buttons to push? Francis does such a good job of depicting the sniping and relentless ego-destruction that only loved ones can inflict. Hot Money is at times uncomfortable to read. No "serious novelist" or "angry young man" could do it better.
Hot Money is the story of an amateur jockey named Ian Pembroke and his much-married millionaire father, Malcolm. Malcolm's fifth wife has been murdered, suffocated in a bag of compost, and Malcolm is the number-one suspect. The police suspect Malcolm because a messy and expensive divorce was in the offing. They don't believe him when he says that an attempt has been made on his own life. Malcolm turns to Ian for help, even though it is apparent that the killer is one of Malcolm's own children …
Well, I'm not going to tell you anything more about it. This is not a book review column. I just want to point out that a good writer picks his form and makes it work for him. Hot Money is a straight whodunit—the first Francis has done, as far as I can remember—but it is no less of a Real Novel for all that.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318
SOURCE: A review of The Edge, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LVI, No. 24, December 15, 1988, p. 1758.
[In the following review, the critic complains that Francis's work has gotten weak and that The Edge is "lumpily padded, thinly plotted: a thouroughgoing disappointment for Francis fans."]
Once upon a time there was an ex-jockey named Dick Francis who wrote taut, fresh action-mysteries about racing (Dead Cert, Nerve, Forfeit, Bonecrack, etc.). For the past ten years or so, however, his fame has grown while his work has gotten ragged, strained, unreliable. And this new adventure—a formula train-thriller that's short on races, and virtually devoid of mystery—may well be Francis' weakest book yet.
Bland narrator-hero Tor Kelsey is a millionaire but, for fun, works as a security-agent for the British Jockey Club. Most recently, he's been on the trail of sleek villain Julius Filmer, who's guilty of extortion and murder—but always manages to walk away scot-free. Then the Jockey Club learns that Filmer has booked passage on "The Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train," a Canadian PR event that combines a posh rail-ride with special races and a silly "murder game" (complete with hired actors) along the way. What dastardly evil does Filmer have in mind? No one is sure. But young Tor goes undercover—just in case—as a waiter/actor. From Toronto to Vancouver, he watches as Filmer cozies up to a matronly (but shady) Thoroughbred-owner, and to the super-wealthy Lorrimore family. Blackmail, it would seem, is in the air—as is sabotage: all the familiar railroad cliffhangers are played out, halfheartedly. Some of the horses on board may also be in danger. And eventually, after some minor derring-do. Tor foils the foul Filmer at last—and uncovers the truth about the Lorrimore clan's truly ludicrous Deep Dark Secret.
Lumpily padded, thinly plotted: a thoroughgoing disappointment for Francis fans—and not much fun even for fanciers of the luxury-train-in-jeopardy genre.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938
SOURCE: "Dick Francis: Not Just Horsing Around," in Washington Post Book World, February 5, 1989, pp. 1, 6.
[In the following review, Westlake discusses Francis's "edge" over other writers of the English detective story, focusing on his novel The Edge.]
What is it, all at once, with Canada? First we had Sondra Gotlieb, wife of the Canadian ambassador, being quoted saying witty things about us and them; then we had the brouhaha up north about our trade agreement with them, making for the first Canadian election in history to be covered seriously in the U.S. press; and now we have Dick Francis, giving us an amiable train ride all across the breadth of Canada, pointing out items of interest long the way. Maybe this is Canada's 15 minutes.
Dick Francis, as everybody knows, gives a good ride. He did so when he first came to fame as a jockey, and he does so now, as one of our premier purveyors of the classic English detective story. The Edge, in a way, refers more directly to Francis himself than to anything in the novel; in both of his professions, he is a consistent winner not because of any particular flash or dash, but because he has the edge he is just that little extra bit better than anybody else in the race. And that's enough.
Which he proves again this time, in a novel that combines in a smooth and palatable way three elements that shouldn't mix well at all: a villain-hunter story; a mystery game with actors playing out a trumped-up plot over several days in front of an audience with its attention primarily elsewhere (on horse racing, in fact); and that train ride across Canada, a travelogue that really ought to bore the pants off us, but doesn't.
Several years ago I took that same train trip, from Toronto to Vancouver, and I can attest that Francis deals with it both accurately and delicately. The scenery across Canada is wild and beautiful and boring—the thousandth mile of great plain looks pretty much like the first, and one tumbled boulderscape can do for them all—and Francis conveys all this without once calling attention to himself calling attention to the scenery. That isn't easy.
Much of what Francis does looks easy and isn't. Here, for instance, is his hero's first sight of the train: "The great train was standing there, faintly hissing, silver, immensely heavy, stretching away in both directions for as far as one could see in the gloom." I've read many train-in-station descriptions—we all have—but I've never before read two words like "immensely heavy" that so effectively lifted me out of my chair and planted me on the platform.
The hero who rides this train is young Tor Kelsey, an undercover investigator for the British Jockey Club, hired because Jockey Club Security needed "someone who knew the racing scene … An eyes and ear man … A fly on racing's wall that no one would notice." Having recently returned to England to claim a hefty inheritance after several years wandering abroad, Tor takes the job because he's alone and idle and the best times of his life had been spent as a teenager with a race-mad aunt.
His current assignment is to get the goods on a "villain" named Filmer, whose previous bad actions are known but unprovable. (In classic style, Filmer is a villain because he's a villain.) Filmer goes to Canada to join a promotional gimmick for Canadian racing—"Briefly, the enterprise offered to the racehorse owners of the world a chance to race a horse in Toronto, to go by train to Winnipeg and race a horse there … and to continue by train to Vancouver, where they might again race a horse"—and Tor follows, disguised on the train as a dining-car waiter.
Also aboard is an acting troupe, performing one or two scenes a day over the course of a week in a mystery story they've concocted: They pretend to be horse owners and trainers and so on, and Francis is, I think, too kind to them. (In real life, it takes much less than a week for such shenanigans to pall.) But, quoting Hamlet's "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king," Tor eventually takes over the mystery-within-a-mystery and rewrites it to affect the action in his own story.
The recipe includes as well a teaspoon of romance, a walloping tablespoon of action (Tor at one point must save the becalmed Race Train Special from being crashed into full-tilt by the overtaking high-speed regular passenger train, the Canadian), and an oddly real and affecting love story between young Tor and a dying elderly lady he's never met, who is his telephone link to the authorities back in Toronto. The development of that character sidebar is touching, must be sincerely felt, and is just one more way in which Dick Francis demonstrates his edge over the rest of the crowd.
If there's a flaw in The Edge it is in Filmer, the villain. His personality and motives remain unclear, and finally we simply have to accept his villainy as a given. Iago at least declared himself; Filmer never does. It may be that Dick Francis is simply too fundamentally decent to give roundly imagined life to someone fundamentally nasty; not a bad flaw to have, really.
At the end of the train ride, Tor and the actors part company, the chief of the troupe saying, "Don't lose touch now … Any time you want a job writing mysteries, let me know." "OK," says the narrator. Good. OK, Dick, you've got the job.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273
SOURCE: "Bloody Sunday," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 12, 1989, p. 6.
[In the following excerpt, Champlin calls the plot of Francis's The Edge "contrived and confining," but asserts that the novel "is suspenseful as always and interesting."]
Dick Francis is now indubitably one of the superstars among mystery/thriller writers: 200,000 first printings, major ad budgets, the works. The Edge, by my reckoning his 27th thriller, has a more contrived and confining plot than his others, but it is suspenseful as always and interesting because there is less of the ultra-graphic violence that has been one of Francis' hallmarks.
A bored and wealthy young horse lover has enlivened his life by getting into undercover work around racecourses. Now he is posing as a waiter aboard "The Great Intercontinental Mystery Race Train," bound west from Ottawa with a cargo of prize horses and their owners, aiming toward a kind of Super Derby in Vancouver.
Vile deeds are feared en route. The faked theatrical mystery enacted now and again along the way thus blends conveniently with the "real" perils. The villain is no mystery: a thoroughly nasty self-made man who has been acquiring fine horses by infamous but so far unprosecutable means. The suspense is what he'll get away with, and how, and whether he can be thwarted.
There is at last a thrilling race—Francis at his descriptive best, catching all the passion of the sport. Before that, the plot roars through the Canadian days and nights with action aplenty but the violence muted, as if Francis himself wanted to take life a bit more calmly. Still The Edge ranks well up among his titles.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646
SOURCE: "Our Money Is on the Waiter," in The New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1989, p. 9.
[In the following review, Grafton praises Francis's The Edge for its authenticity.]
Now and then, a writer's skill and his subject are so perfectly wed that a whole new category of fiction has to be invented to accommodate the offspring. Such is the case with Dick Francis and his love of horse racing, which he's managed to blend into some 29 mystery novels to date. A former champion steeplechase jockey until sidelined by an injury at the age of 36, Mr. Francis has used his passion for the sport as the focus of fiction both polished and engaging. The possibilities are apparently endless for this fine craftsman. One needn't be a race track aficionado oneself to be drawn into the world he creates. (My own relationship with horses ended abruptly when I was 9, after a Calumet Farms thoroughbred bit me in the dress, ripping the waistband beyond redemption. I haven't stopped to give a horse the time of day since.)
The protagonist in a Dick Francis racing tale is inevitably male, ranging in age from his mid-20's to late 30's, competent, decent, dedicated, tough, often a solitary figure operating against great odds. His profession may vary, but he's always connected to the racing game in some guise; owner, trainer, jockey, pilot, photographer. Whatever his hero's occupation, Mr. Francis' research is impeccable and his dedication to the world of racing infuses the narrative with authenticity.
In his latest book, The Edge, the protagonist Tor Kelsey has acquired his equine expertise through the tutelage of the "race-mad" maiden aunt who raised him after the death of his parents. Now, at age 29, having come into a sizable inheritance, he's returned to England after several years of world travel and for three years has worked as an undercover investigator for the British Jockey Club. The object of his attention is a man named Julius Apollo Filmer, who's been involved in numerous questionable transactions with Jockey Club members, using any means at his disposal to acquire ownership of certain thoroughbreds. In addition, the ruthless Filmer has been implicated in the death of a stable lad, but has managed to sidestep conspiracy charges.
The Jockey Club, frustrated in its attempts to have Filmer warned off, is alarmed to learn that he's managed to insinuate himself onto the passenger list of the Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train, which will shortly be crossing Canada on a seven-day junket. Tor Kelsey is assigned to protect both the horses and the passengers. Kelsey joins the staff, using the invisibility of his waiter's uniform, to keep an eye on Filmer, hoping to prevent any acts of sabotage. No easy task. A series of near misses keeps the story moving, along with the shenanigans of a "murder mystery" being enacted en route, which are cleverly incorporated into the plot. He not only evokes the seduction of traveling by train but, as usual, he manages to convey his abiding affection for the racing game itself.
"The jockeys were thrown up like rainbow thistle—down onto the tiny saddles and let their skinny bodies move to the fluid rhythm of the walking thoroughbreds. Out on the track with the horses' gait breaking into a trot or canter they would be more comfortable standing up in the stirrups to let the bumper rhythms flow beneath them, but on the way out from the parade ring they swayed languorously like a camel train. I loved to watch them: never grew tired of it. I loved the big beautiful animals with their tiny brains and their overwhelming instincts and I'd always, all over the world, felt at home tending them, riding them and watching them wake up and perform."
It's obvious Dick Francis had a good time writing The Edge. I certainly had a good time reading it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400
SOURCE: "Train Thriller Not on Track," in Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 1989, p. 13.
[In the following review, Tirrell discusses the problems with Francis's The Edge, including its weak premise, its lack of mystery, and the blandness of the protagonist.]
His record is impressive. After a near-fatal riding accident "put paid" to his career as a champion steeplechase jockey, Dick Francis took his intimate knowledge of the racing world and translated it into another winning profession, that of writing mystery/thrillers. The Edge is Francis's 29th offering and his latest in a string of international best-sellers.
Set aboard a Canadian Transcontinental Mystery Race Train, The Edge contains all the components of a classic Dick Francis thriller: a very unctuous, very rich, very evil villain; a nice, ordinary guy turned hero; horses; horse owners; racetracks; and a girl.
Tor Kelsey—the hero—is a Jockey Club investigator with a skill for blending into the background and seeing things that other people might overlook. Disguised as a waiter, he travels from Ottawa to Vancouver for the purpose of thwarting the schemes of the Machiavellian Mr. Julius Filmer, a man with a penchant for blackmail and murder. The difficulty for Tor lies in the fact that he has no idea how or when Mr. Filmer may strike.
Often Francis's novels begin with a bang, with the discovery of some horrific incident that jolts the protagonist into heroic action. But The Edge begins slowly and has a hard time getting rolling as Francis meticulously sets the scene and assembles the cast for his drama.
As ever, Francis writers in whistle-clean, economical prose, with a deft turn of phrase. And his first person narrative style is embracing and engaging.
But somewhere between Ottawa and Vancouver, the thrill in this thriller gets derailed.
Perhaps the difficulty lies in the premise—not all people are as unnoticing as Francis wants us to believe, and so the chameleon-man concept doesn't work. Or maybe it's that Francis reveals the villain at the outset, thus diluting this mystery's mystique.
It could be that the hero, Tor Kelsey, is so adept at becoming one with the wallpaper that the reader cannot come to know and like him because there's very little to know and like.
But whether the problem is just one of the above or a combination of all three, The Edge is one racing mystery that doesn't keep suspense on track.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 264
SOURCE: "Five Thriller Writers at Their Best," in The Spectator, Vol. 263, No. 8419, November 18, 1989, pp. 41-2.
[In the following review, Waugh lauds Francis's Straight as one of his most enjoyable novels.]
Dick Francis' annual treat for his admirers is out, and it is a good one. The story races along without any phoney plotting to slow it down. The hero of Straight is an aging steeplechaser called Derek Franklin who finds he has inherited his much older brother Greville's gem business after he has died in an accident. He only knew his brother slightly and knows nothing about gems. However, since he is temporarily on crutches, owing to a bad racing fall, he decides to spend his time sorting out his brother's affairs, which include a married mistress, two racehorses and the business itself, employing about six people. There is trouble ahead. People constantly clobber him over the head, there are two million pounds worth of missing diamonds which, unless they can be recovered, could mean the business going bust, and then there is the curious behaviour of Greville's trainer. In fact there is so much sculduggery around, and Derek receives so much physical damage, that I began to wonder whether he would be able to ride again. However, Derek is a Real Man and takes it all in his stride until he has everything neatly unravelled. This is one of the most enjoyable books Dick Francis has written in years, and for once (unlike the other crime novels I am reviewing) the villain is arrested and taken off to face justice. Much more satisfactory.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
SOURCE: "Dick Francis: Back in Winning Form," The Washington Post Book World, November 19, 1989, p. 10.
[In the following review, White asserts that Francis's Straight represents a return to the winner's circle for Francis after a string of disappointing novels.]
If you read the first paragraph of Straight, the latest Dick Francis thriller, I'm willing to wager, whatever the odds, you will sprint to the finish line.
Who can resist this lead-on:
"I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses, and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me."
Derek Franklin, one of the more engaging narrator-heroes in the Franciscan canon of 28 thrillers, is hobbling around on a broken ankle after a steeplechase fall when he receives word that Greville, his older brother, is in the hospital on life-support systems after being injured by falling scaffolding at a construction site.
In the impersonal intensive-care room with a bank of screens showing Greville's brain waves and heartbeats, Derek realizes how little he has shared with Greville (19 years his senior) and wishes that they had been closer.
To Derek's surprise, he is the only beneficiary—inheriting his brother's gem-importing business, two horses (and mistress, whom he must remind later, "I'm not Greville"). And Derek and the reader get to know the dead Greville as he searches through his brother's diary, appointment calendar and computer notations.
Greville loved gadgets, and his collection included a remote car spotter (it sounds the horn and blinks the lights), a sound-enhancer for eavesdropping, spy juice to read letters through envelopes doctored to become transparent, a Geiger counter and secret computer files.
There is one riddle after another. Where did Greville hide $1.5 million in diamonds bought secretly? Why does an alarm go off at precisely 4:20 p.m. each day in the office? What does the scribbled notion "Koningen Beatrix" stand for? Who is ransacking Greville's home and office? Why is the trainer of Greville's two horses so hostile? Who ambushed the car of an American couple (among the fascinating supporting characters) in which Derek was riding?
All is answered satisfactorily as Francis paces the narrative to a smashing finish. The book's title, Straight, resonates with meaning. In Britain, the homestretch is called the finishing straight. And Greville had written in his notes that "the crooked despise the straight."
With Straight, Francis is back in top form after some rather flat, overbloated recent performances where he succumbed to "novel" writing rather than sticking to the limits of the genre of which he is master. Last year's The Edge, saved only by Francis's gift for narration, was an overweight variation on the old theme of murder-on-train and sometimes seemed as long as its trans-continental trip across Canada.
This time Francis is back on his turf. The plot is inventive and beautifully constructed to bring together all the threads of the sub-plots at the end. The characters are real and individual. There are poignant, touching moments, such as Derek's realizing the missed opportunities with the brother who followed his steeplechase rides on television and jotted down "Derek won it!" in his diary.
As is all Francis novels, the racing background, although subsidiary in Straight, is alive with the sounds and smells and characters at the track and stables. Should a horse be gelded? And why would a kitchen-variety baster be found near the stables?
But it's the world of gems and gadgets that proves most fascinating in Straight. Francis is a tireless researcher when he ventures into a new field. Derek's brother ran an import business dealing with semi-precious gems, and we learn how gamma radiation can improve the color of stones and what the formula CZ=C×l.7 signifies.
It seems that all of the Francis heroes have to suffer pain in exploding violence that sometimes borders on the gratuitous. Derek, an easy mark on his crutches, is mugged and bashed, then spends harrowing moments trapped in a car as rescuers attempt to free him before the gas tank catches fire. It's tough to be a Francis hero. But Francis is back in the winner's circle aboard Straight.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
SOURCE: "Off-Track Villainy," in The New York Times Book Review, December 3, 1989, p. 32.
[In the following review, Stasio asserts that while Francis's Straight is well-researched, the sections about horse racing are more compelling than the scenes about gemstones.]
During the years that Dick Francis rode steeplechase jumps for the Queen Mother, he broke his collarbone a dozen times, fractured multiple ribs and dislocated, sprained, wrenched, twisted and smashed so many other parts of his anatomy that he lost count. It was while recuperating from one of these injuries, in fact, that the onetime champion rider took up writing as a hobby.
Today, 32 years and 28 novels later, the British author can still describe in wincing detail the pain of a broken ankle and the boredom that can send an injured jockey hobbling around on crutches in search of something to occupy his mind. Something like a good adventure with a bit of horseflesh and a spot of danger. Something like Straight.
Derek Franklin, the terribly decent hero of this well-told tale, is a steeplechase jockey who breaks his ankle in a miscalculated jump on the last fence at Cheltenham. Two days later, he gets another jolt when his estranged older brother, Greville Saxony Franklin, is killed in a freak accident. As his brother's sole heir and executor, Derek unexpectedly finds himself the head of a thriving gemology firm and owner of two race horses.
But before he can settle the estate, he becomes entangled in his brother's complicated business and personal affairs. Greville's home and office are mysteriously burgled, and Derek himself is attacked. Urgent offers, bordering on threatening demands, are extended by would-be buyers of Dozen Roses and Gemstones, the two race horses. A mistress surfaces. A million-and-a-half dollars worth of missing diamonds does not.
"I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me," observes Derek, who limps through these and other baffling developments with a throbbing ankle and a stiff upper lip, drawn by the new insights he is gaining into his brother's forceful but extremely private identity. "I knew only his taste in clothes, food, gadgets and horses," he mourns "Not very much. Not enough."
In the course of his quest—for the missing diamonds, for more knowledge of his secretive brother, for the shadowy assailants who will reveal themselves as ruthless killers—the unflappable Derek also learns something about the semiprecious gem industry. In the laconic fashion that we have come to identify with Mr. Francis' essentially interchangeable heroes, the jockey even begins to appreciate his brother's collection of high-tech computerized gadgetry, especially when one of these little toys saves his life.
The author delivers his well-researched material in that didactic, politely impressed tone that he often reserves for such literary excursions outside the world of horse racing. The humble reader, however, remains unawed by the technical chitchat about chrysoberyls and peridots, and infinitely more grateful for the rare appearances of Gemstones the horse than for those of gemstones the gemstones. Even those elusive diamonds lack the sparkle and flash of Derek's too-brief encounters with horses and their owners and trainers.
It can be said, without spoiling the story, that Derek eventually overcomes the villain (who has stuck out all along, like an army boot at a cotillion ball) and discovers that his brother was something of a saint, embodying all those values of loyalty and integrity and fair play that Francis heroes live by and die for.
"If home was where the heart was," Derek says, "I really lived out on the windy Downs and in stable yards and on the raucous racetracks." If this nice chap follows doctor's orders, perhaps the author will let him heal in time for the Grand National.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
SOURCE: "Surviving the English Countryside," in The New York Times Book Review, October 14, 1990, p. 45.
[In the following review, Cahill lauds Francis's Longshot as a satisfying, read-at-one-sitting novel.]
They're calling for passengers to board the plane to Tonga and I find that I'm unprepared. I need a book. Something light and entertaining and informative and plot driven. Ah, but there's always Dick Francis at the newsstand, several dozen of him, staring out from the best seller rack. I know that the book will be a mystery, probably a murder mystery, and that it will be set against a racing background. After all, Mr. Francis, once a champion jockey in Britain, has written a string of best selling mysteries, most of which check in regularly at the track.
I'm about as interested in horse racing as I am in dentistry—which is to say not at all. Still, experience has taught me that Mr. Francis is one of our most satisfying read it at one sitting writers. I know that. But I resist him because of the racing. Still, staring at a 16 hour flight, I find the phrase "don't take chances, go with Francis" echoing in my mind. So what if there are horses in this new book? When I look up from the last page, I'll be halfway across the Pacific, and the time will have passed painlessly. I'll know a little more about, ho hum, racing as well.
But Longshot turns out to be a bit of a surprise. It opens with a one sentence paragraph that speaks to me as viscerally as anything Mr. Francis has ever written. "I accepted a commission that had been turned down by four other writers, but I was hungry at the time." A writer who will accept any paying job? I find this a credible character.
The writer in question, John Kendall, is the author of such aptly titled survival manuals as Safari, Jungle and Ice. Ironically, he can't afford the necessities of life in London because he hasn't managed to make much of a living writing about ways to avoid death.
Hey, I write books and articles that sometimes concern themselves with survival. And I currently have a letter on my desk from the mortgage company wondering what happened to the September payment. This is the shock of recognition Writ Large. Either that or Dick Francis has been reading my mail.
Kendall agrees to write the biography of a successful and boorish—yes—horse trainer. He contracts to spend several months at his subject's training facility in rural England, where he will interview him.
Now, the simplest rules of craft suggest that if you introduce a survival expert in the first chapter, he should demonstrate his skills somewhere in the course of the book. However, John Kendall is a man who writes about remote locales, who advises his readers not to eat polar bear liver because "it stores enough vitamin A to kill humans." Rural England, I sensed, would not contain enough challenges for John Kendall.
But no, there's a survival situation in the second chapter. I read it the way doctors read operating room scenes or lawyers read courtroom dramas. Did the author hit the note or is he blowing smoke? Mr. Francis' scene is believable and convincing.
There is, of course, a murder to be solved, and Kendall finds himself dragged, willy-nilly, into the investigation. Meanwhile, the entire cast of suspects—the trainer, his son, the son's wife, an obnoxious amateur jockey—is reading and enjoying Kendall's survival manuals. To help wounds clot, Kendall informs one of them, it is necessary only to apply cobwebs, which are organic and "as sterile as most bandages."
As Kendall gets closer to discovering the identity of the killer, he is ambushed, according to—good Lord—the hunting and trapping instructions in his own books. There is a harrowing and breathless chapter toward the end that is a comment on the entire concept of survival, followed by an ending that wraps everything up in a neat bundle without cheating.
Perfect. I closed the book, satisfied Longshot ate up several thousand miles. Sentient human beings know that 16 hour flights are boring unto death. An intelligent, fast-paced mystery is a survival tool. Dick Francis can save your life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728
SOURCE: "Take a Walk on the Wild Side," in The Washington Post Book World, November 18, 1990, p. 9.
[In the following review, Stewart praises Francis's impeccable research for Longshot, and comments on how Francis deals with expletives in the novel.]
There are two kinds of readers: those who like heroes and those who like anti-heroes. The hero, in general, is unswervingly honorable, unquestionably decent, unabashedly straight. Ambiguity never pokes a finger in his eye. And unlike his opposite, the anti-hero, he doesn't seem to stumble onto paths of virtue by way of an accidental detour in the existential maze. He's there because it's simply in his bones to be there.
And there, in a nutshell, is the charm (or, depending on your attitude, the drawback) of the Dick Francis hero—the man who keeps appearing, under various names and selected occupations, in Francis's intelligent and well-crafted books.
Longshot, his 29th mystery-thriller, sets writer John Kendall, another of his pleasantly engaging young men, on an R-rated version of a boys' adventure plus country-house murder. The result is a thoroughly appealing whodunit, the kind to go to bed with on a cold winter's night or to take—along with chicken soup, aspirin and honey—at the first signs of flu.
In fact, so adept is Francis at his craft, so properly insistent on the borders of his isolated, civilized world, that even those readers who prefer sterner stuff may find themselves in sudden agreement with the hero: "Though … it was odd to find myself living in the lives of all these people, as if I'd stepped into a play that was already in progress and been given a walk-on part in the action … I felt drawn in and interested and unwilling to miss any scene."
Kendall, 32, is a between-novels writer who's been alternately starving and freezing in a garret. Author of half a dozen guides to survival (personally researched in the jungles and the wilds), he's tried his hand at fiction and been struck with its rewards: publication, poverty, solitude and dread. Surviving as a writer, he's learned, is as difficult as camping in a swamp.
And so, when he's offered a chance to make some money by writing the biography of one Tremayne Vickers. a man who's convinced he's led a fascinating life ("Childhood … growing up … success … My life had been interesting, dammit"), well, it's an offer not easy to refuse. Especially when it's sweetened by the heartwarming (anyway, bone-warming) promise of a month in the country at the Vickers estate.
Vickers (are you waiting for the horses?) is a trainer. His family is charming, his friends are attractive and his world is an oyster—if you don't count the undercurrents roiling all around.
Murder, for one thing. Mayhem, for another. And suddenly Kendall's in the trickiest position of his short happy life.
Francis, whose research is always impeccable, has previously offered us the wine world (in Proof) the gem world (in Straight) and the art world (in In the Frame). This time he offers us the world of survival.
In Longshot you can learn how to build your own fire, how to clot your own blood ("Apply cobwebs to the wound. They're … as sterile as most bandages"), how to use your watch as a compass ("Point the hour hand at the sun, then halfway between the hand and twelve o'clock is the north-south line").
Obviously, a set-up like that demands a payoff. Something like the hero getting trapped in the forest with a two- (or is it three-) time killer on his trail, and finding rare opportunity to practice what he's preached.
I have only one quarrel to pick with Francis, though I understand his problem: How do you write dialogue for tough modern characters and still keep it clean?
Francis's solution is to aim for a compromise, with dialogue that's, well, half-buttocked, shall we say. A kind of exercise in curses that never got cursed.
One of his characters is even self-censored, substituting words like "expletive," "bleep" and "deleted" for the "truly offensive obscene words" he means. Some examples: "'Bleep the lawyer,' Lewis said." and "'Nolan doesn't expletive like you, dear heart.'"
As I say, I'm completely sympathetic to the problem, which is definitely thorny. But then, on the other hand, it's one of those situations where you're bleeped if you do and deleted if you don't.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1588
SOURCE: "Champion Rider to Champion Writer," in The Chicago Tribune, November 20, 1990, pp. 1, 2.
[In the following essay, Killian describes Francis's life and careers as both a steeplechase jockey and a writer.]
Dick Francis no longer needs to ride a horse.
He has just issued Longshot, his 29th novel and 31st book, and, like previous Francis works, it is being displayed on the best-seller shelves of the nation's bookstores. This puts it in a league with Straight, his novel of last year, and The Edge, released the year before that.
In January, he'll begin his next one, and a year from now the bookstores very likely will be making a lot of shelf room for that one too.
It's hard to think of a more celebrated and avidly read mystery writer in Francis' adoptive United States or his native England. But he used to ride horses quite a lot, and has many more honors than the designation as England's champion jockey of 1954 to prove it.
Over coffee one bright, brisk recent morning as he prepared to drive out to the Virginia horse country to help preside over the running of the 53rd International Gold Cup steeplechase race, Francis recalled that his trophies have included a few broken bones:
"The collar bones, six times each side. Broke my nose five times. I crushed some vertebrae, and I broke my arms—and my wrist. Not my legs. I've always been able to walk about. But ribs? No end of ribs. Couldn't count those. You'd just strap yourself up and ride if you possibly could. When you got warmed up, you couldn't feel it."
Just turned 70 and an official "resident alien" of the U.S., Francis and his wife of 43 years, Mary, live a sunny, comfortable existence in an oceanfront high-rise in Ft. Lauderdale. He turns up as an honored guest at race meetings all over the fabled, rolling horse country of the U.S. and Britain. This year as last, he helped present the extravagantly grand trophy to the winner of the Virginia International, adding his luster to one of the most prestigious events in American steeplechasing.
But that's about as close as he gets to the intimidating, giant fences he used to take at full gallop, mile after mile, day after day, simply as a way of making an ordinary living.
"I don't ride much at all," he said. "When I go back and stay with my oldest son, Merrick [a British horse trainer], I might go out in the morning and ride one of his horses to watch the others work, but I don't ride enough to say I still ride."
But he sure did. Few of the world's top mystery and thriller writers have lived the lives of their protagonists, relying instead on vivid imaginations and hard research to produce their compelling stories. Mickey Spillane was never a private eye. Freddy Forsyth was a journalist, not a spy (or assassin). Neither was spymaster Len Deighton, who also wrote Bomber and another best-seller about fighter pilots called Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, without benefit of World War II aerial combat experience.
Francis, who incidentally was a fighter pilot and bomber pilot in the war, came to novel-writing with 11 years' experience as a jockey, much like those who serve as the heroes of his books, all of which involve horse racing. He once asked his publisher if she'd mind if he wrote a book that wasn't about racing.
"We'll publish anything you write," she said. "We'd rather you didn't, though."
And, yes, he concedes, those dogged, likable guys who always manage to prevail over Francis' rich assortment of villains are based on him.
"I'm not as clever or as brave as they are," he said. "But I never ask my characters to suffer anything or do anything I haven't suffered or done myself. The things that happen to them are the sort of things that happened to me on racecourses. In Knockdown, the man suffered from a recurring dislocated shoulder, and it was pulled out when he tried to open a door. That happened to me. I've got a recurring dislocated shoulder, and that's more painful than any break."
In a steeplechasing career lasting from 1946 to 1957, Francis won between 350 and 400 races (he can't recall exactly). He was so good he became jockey for the horses of Elizabeth, England's queen mother, and it was in her service that the extraordinary incident occurred that led to his turning to writing.
He said it was old age (37) that prompted him to retire from the sport. "The breaks were taking longer to heal." But the decision involved the sort of odd twist of fate that figures in his stories.
"I was the queen mother's main jockey," he said, "and was riding her horse Devon Loch. He was winning the race—I was having a wonderful ride on him—and I jumped the last fence and was half a mile to the winning post.
"There were a quarter of a million people there, and they were all yelling for the queen mother. You don't really hear the noise from the sidelines when you're riding, but I heard it when I was jumping the last fence. I thought no more of it, and rode on. About 25 yards from the winning post—I've looked at the film many times—Devon Loch sort of pricked up his ears and this crescendo of cheering hit him.
"I thought, 'God, what's that?' and his hindquarters refused to act for a slight second, and down he went on his belly and slid along the ground. How I didn't fall off him, I didn't know. If he'd got to his feet and I got him going again, I was still in front enough to have won. But he pulled all the muscles in his hindquarters and more or less collapsed again. I had to get off him and walk away in disgust."
Though he lost the race—the Grand National—the "fantastic happening" made him an instant celebrity. An agent told him it was the perfect time to write his autobiography. It was also, Francis decided, a good time to get out of racing. A friend advised that "if you stop now, you'll get all sorts of things offered to you. If you train, you'll get horses sent."
Francis didn't want to become a horse trainer, but his fame and his progress on his memoir, The Sport of Queens, inspired the sports editor of the London Sunday Express to hire him to write a half dozen articles on racing, which led to his becoming a professional journalist and writing a weekly racing commentary for the next 16 years.
Steeplechase jockeys weren't paid very much in those days ("7 pounds, 7 shillings; another 10 pounds if you brought in a winner"), but newspaper writers earned even less. After four years of this, he said, his wife said to him: "'We've got two boys to educate, and the carpet's beginning to wear out. The car's beginning to knock. What are you going to do? You always said you were going to write a novel. Now's the time.'"
Called Dead Cert, the novel came out the next year, and Francis has been writing a novel a year ever since.
At 5 foot 8—a typical height for a steeplechase jockey (in racing attire he weighed 140 pounds)—Francis was "born to the saddle," the descendant of a long line of Welsh horsemen and the son of a successful trainer. He began riding ponies at age 3. His father tried to discourage him from becoming a jockey, but at age 18 he signed up with a racing stable. Before he could get into a race, his patron was killed in an automobile accident, and shortly afterward World War II broke out in Europe.
Beginning his military service as an enlisted man in a Royal Air Force ground crew, he was promoted to pilot, flying Spitfires in Africa and over northern Europe, and then transferring to bombers as the pilot of a Lancaster.
He met his wife at a cousin's wedding in the midst of the war. "She said if I had asked her to marry me that day, she'd have married me straight away, but it took me 18 months to persuade her in the end," Francis said.
Leaving the service with the rank of flying officer, he commenced his career as a jockey in 1946.
Their son Merrick now has three children, and their other son, Felix, a schoolmaster, has two. The two families visit the Francises frequently in Ft. Lauderdale, where Francis took up permanent residence several years ago because of his wife's asthmatic aversion to cold.
Their principal recreation is travel. It takes Francis from early January to late May every year to write his books, and he and Mary spend much of the rest of the time wandering about the globe, doing research for the next book.
For example, his latest, Longshot, grew out of his son Felix's journey to the jungles of Borneo with a group of his pupils. The hero is a travel writer who gets caught up in a racing mystery.
Francis wouldn't reveal the plans for his next novel. But he did admit that as soon as the Virginia Gold Cup race was over, he was returning to Florida, where he and his wife were joining Felix and his family for their first visit to Disney World.
Hmmmm. Could there be a plot in the works about a jockey who goes to Orlando in search of a horse named Goofy?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 179
SOURCE: A review of The Dick Francis Treasury of Great Horseracing Stories, in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 16, 1990, p. 7.
[In the following excerpt, Champlin provides a brief overview of The Dick Francis Treasury of Great Horseracing Stones.]
The short form demands, and in these selections receives, high dosages of wit and irony as well as surprise. The conjoined spirits of O. Henry and Alfred Hitchcock, so to speak, watch over much of the work, which is to be taken in small doses. One at bedtime, say.
The principal link to crime as such in another anthology is that its co-editor was Dick Francis. He and John Welcome have chosen and introduced The Dick Francis Treasury of Great Horseracing Stories. The authorships range from Conan Doyle (his "Silver Blaze," historic if only because it was therein that the dog, curiously, did not bark in the night) to Sherwood Anderson ("I'm a Fool"), John Galsworthy ("Had a Horse") and John P. Marquand whose "What's It Get You?" is a lovely sardonic tale about a caper involving a disguised horse.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400
SOURCE: A review of Longshot, in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 228.
[In the following excerpt, Mattos lauds the "pulse-quickening suspense" of Francis's novels and Longshot in particular.]
In 1962, so the story goes, Dick Francis needed a new carpet for his sitting room. He decided to write a book to get the money. Drawing upon his past as a successful jockey, he wrote a thriller set in the world of horse racing. That was Dead Cert. He now has homes in both the U.S. and Great Britain, and I bet they all have fine carpets. In Francis's latest novel, the hero, John Kendall, is a struggling writer. He is down to his last few pence when the pipes freeze in his rooms and he is forced to seek temporary accommodations. About this time, he meets Tremayne Vickers, a successful horse trainer who feels the need to have his biography written. Although Kendall knows little of horses and less of Vickers, he succumbs to the lure of room and board. Kendall arrives at Vickers's estate amid a swirl of controversy about a trial concerning the death of a young lady at a party given there. Tensions mount as the skeleton of another girl, who has been missing for some time, is found in a nearby wood. As the list of suspects narrows to the Vickers group, we find the usual Dick Francis nail-biting, page-turning climax.
Dick Francis does not use a continuing series character in his novels. John Kendall is, however, a typical Francis hero—competent, likable, and decent. He is thrust, reluctantly, into an alien environment where he must use all of his skills to survive. Luckily for this hero, a past job was to research and write a series of survival manuals. Unfortunately, the information in these manuals not only helps Kendall survive, it also provides the killer with a source of deadly ideas.
Dick Francis is my favorite writer of thrillers (at least this week he is). His novels can always be counted on for pulse-quickening suspense. His talent is such that you may actually find yourself breathing a little faster, pulling at your hair, and groaning a bit with the characters before you reach the end of the book. There are few books that I know I will enjoy just from the author's name. The Dick Francis novels are on this list. A definite must-read.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
SOURCE: "Another Day At the Races," in Washington Post Book World, November 17, 1991, p. 10.
[In the following review, Corrigan briefly discusses Francis's formula and how Comeback differs from his previous novels.]
By now, fans look forward to getting three things in a Dick Francis mystery. First, there's the obligatory "race-with-a-ctose-finish" scene, in which an unlikely horse with the heart of a champion beats the racetrack favorite by a nostril hair. Francis recycles this scene to establish the moral code of his books. It goes something like this: Racing is like Life. Cowards and cheaters always lose; the good and the brave always win, damn the odds!
Another staple of Francis's books is his reverence for superior bloodlines, not only in horses but in people. The typical thriller restores order to the racing world by restoring power to the aristocracy. Usually a humble but fearless hero (often a jockey) discovers an evil plot against racing. He informs one of the patrician members of the Racing Commission—someone with a name like Sir Nigel Gout. At first, Sir Nigel's judgment is clouded (maybe by decades of guzzling gin and tonics). But Sir Nigel always rallies, the low-class bounder is arrested, and our hero rides off, usually with Sir Nigel's niece.
That's the third trademark element of a Francis mystery—the love interest. To Francis, a desirable woman is a lot like a fine racehorse. Both have glossy manes, firm withers and good breeding. And both secretly want to be reined in and mastered by our heroes.
Comeback, Francis's 30th thriller, serves up his basic winning formula with some exotic touches. Hero Peter Darwin, a young British diplomat who's just been assigned to a posting in London, finds himself caught up in the nightmarish problems of a new friend, veterinary surgeon Ken McClure. It seems that a lot of injured racehorses have died shortly after McClure has operated on them. McClure's reputation is heading to the glue factory—fast—and so Darwin puts his diplomatic skills to work to solve the mysterious deaths.
Francis substitutes suspenseful descriptions of horse surgery here for his usual suspenseful descriptions of horse racing, since most of the action takes place on the grounds of the veterinary practice. Comeback also contains one of the creepiest climaxes of any recent Francis novel and, certainly, one of the tackiest propositions ever uttered by a Francis hero—"How about a bonk, then?" says Darwin to a frisky filly, not to be confused with the thoroughbred Bishop's daughter he's set to hitch up with by novel's end. The most startling change in Comeback, however, is the class background of the villain: for once. I couldn't figure out who the bad guy was simply by noticing which one of the characters didn't know how to use a fingerbowl.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250
SOURCE: A review of Driving Force, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 34, July 27, 1992, p. 46.
[In the following review, the critic praises Francis's Driving Force for its believable characters and realistic setting.]
Archetypal Francis hero Freddie Croft is a 35-year-old former champion steeplechase jockey, knowledgeable about the British racing milieu and tolerant of its denizens, a bit of a loner, keen on honor and notably phlegmatic. His phlegm is sorely tested when two of his drivers—he owns 14 vans that transport racehorses from a Hampshire village—arrive with the body of a hitchhiker who died in the backseat during the ride. Before the death is ruled natural Freddie's head mechanic. Jogger, finds odd empty containers hidden on three vans. Freddie chases a midnight prowler, Jogger turns up with his neck broken, the firm's computer system crashes with a virus and Freddie discovers 10cc tubes filled with mysterious liquid in a Thermos that belonged to the dead hitchhiker. Worried that drugs are being smuggled during the vans' regular trips between England and Ireland and the Continent, he enlists help from Jockey Club Security in the undercover form of glamorous, older Nina. Muscle, money and malice threaten our hero in a wonderfully complicated plot centering on a lick virus. Colorful and believable characters, a setting so realistic the book could double as a manual on running a horse-transport firm, a delicious puzzle and a very satisfying ending add up to first-class entertainment. Francis (Comeback and 31 other mysteries) is not a brand-name author for nothing.
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SOURCE: "He Gets the Horse Right There," in The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1992, p. 32.
[In the following review, Tallent offers reserved praise for Francis's Driving Force while pointing out some of the novel's flaws.]
In his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, Dick Francis could not be more direct about his latest profession: "When I write any one sentence. I think first of all of what I want to say. Then I think of a way of saying it." The brisk assessment of a situation, the lucid self-reliance, the smart refusal to fuss about what other people fuss a lot about—this confession rings with the elements of style for many a Dick Francis protagonist. Racing journalism was the means for Mr. Francis, in 1957 a retired Champion Jockey in Britain, not only to earn a different kind of living, but also to perfect professionally succinct prose conveying vivid action. Adept hero, dexterous prose—these are the unfailing aspects of Dick Francis' series of 31 novels.
With Driving Force he treats his readers to another amiably disillusioned, smart and un-self-pitying ex-jockey narrator. Freddie Croft's current business is transporting horses to English race tracks. "I had told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead." "Of course" nonchalantly removes this first sentence from any danger of seeming simply a mystery's obligatory hook.
The "multimillion fortunes on the hoof," as Freddie terms race horses, with their fragile legs and fractious moods, pose tricky problems in transit. Largely by computer, in pinches by intuition, Freddie choreographs the crisscrossing of England by his fleet of huge vans. Mr. Francis, who can turn the nuts and bolts of any profession to fictional gold, sketches a thriving business whose peculiar emergencies include claustrophobic horses, flu-stricken drivers and of course the occasional dead hitchhiker. But horses are fortunes to Freddie, investments to be protected rather than real, errant individuals, and whenever a Dick Francis hero strays too far from actual horseflesh, the novel he's in forfeits a great source of gusto.
My private theory is that horses function as the id, the unruly life force, for Mr. Francis' disciplined sleuths, and that cut off from horses these narrators have the brainy, controlled dryness of too much superego. (I know: this analysis would rate, from any Dick Francis hero, one of those infinitely ambiguous "Mm" s. Or worse, "Right," Brit for "in a pig's eye.") Irkab Athawa, a dazzling 3-year-old, steals those scenes he's in and, briefly, Freddie's heart; the horse could have figured more consistently in the plot as it complicates.
It gets very complicated. Beginning with that dead body, Freddie is confronted with a wicked scam, on the cutting edge in its technology and implications. His vans, he finds, have been transporting something other than horses. Driving Force is rich in information—about Cockney rhyming slang, the Michelangelo computer virus, intercontinental smuggling and ticks (yes, ticks), among other subjects. Mr. Francis deals with the potential for boredom in exposition, or at least flatness, by putting the more obscure explanations in the mouths of completely charming, completely obsessed eccentrics ("Guggenheim moved in this mysterious territory [his laboratory] with the certainty of a Rubik round his cube"), and I read merrily along, entranced. It's either hard or impossible to read Mr. Francis without growing pleased with your self: not only the thrill of vicarious competence imparted by the company of his heroes, but also the lore you collect as you go, feel like a field trip with the perfect guide.
Driving Force isn't flawless Dick Francis. Too many characters share the quirk of prefacing remarks with "Er." I wanted to kill Freddie the next time he responded to a remark with "Mm." Too many mouths hang open in astonishment. Successive one-sentence paragraphs seem an effort to trump up suspense that isn't coming naturally. Freddie's romance with an undercover agent for the Jockey Club has its moments, but is basically as overshadowed by proliferating plot twists as his romance with Irkab Athawa.
What's wanted in a violent denouement is that it seem boldly improbable but, by a whisker, believable, and because mysteries are ecosystems of right and wrong, fair. The culprit remained too enigmatic to inspire real dislike, and the climax, besides tying up too many loose ends for credibility, was a slightly abstract satisfaction.
"Frenzy," "sly childish impulse to hurt," "destruction and wrecking for its own sake" are names given the danger threatening Freddie. The havoc wreaked by this perverse driving force makes for a read that is (I'm resisting saying "as always") ingeniously entertaining, overall. The author's notes for Mr. Francis' books often observe that as a jockey he rode for the Queen Mother. At this point in his illustrious writing career, the Queen Mother might wish to note in her vita that the writer Dick Francis once rode for her.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
SOURCE: "As Easy as Falling Off a Horse," in People Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 21, November 23, 1992, pp. 139-40.
[In the following essay, Dampier and Gleick present an overview of Francis's life and career.]
Dick Francis begins every new year the same way. Each Jan. 1, he rises early, takes a walk on the beach and a quick swim, then repairs to the balcony of his Fort Lauderdale condominium. There the 72-year-old author sits in a pink lawn chair, takes out an empty notebook and waits, pen poised, for inspiration. "It takes quite a time," he says. "I sit out there and think. After a while, you find the words coming."
Another year, another best-seller. Five months after this annual ritual, Francis delivers a manuscript—always a tightly wrought tale of horse racing and gambling, spills, thrills and what he calls "dirty deeds"—to his publisher. And each fall the Welsh-born former jockey's eager public, including Britain's Queen Mother, devours a new Dick Francis mystery. His newest, Driving Force, like the 30 preceding it, promptly leapt onto best-seller lists here and in Britain. (Novelist Elizabeth Tallent, in The New York Times, called it "ingeniously entertaining"—standard praise for a Francis thriller.) He sells more than 200,000 hardcover copies of each new mystery—and millions more in paperback. "The books have done quite well," says Francis with characteristic understatement.
Francis requires silence to do his daily six or seven hours of writing, but he does not labor in solitude. His wife of 45 years, Mary who is in her 60s, tiptoes around their large, cluttered apartment and, without making a sound, brings her husband lunch; meanwhile, she keeps busy with some detective work of her own. When Francis needed aeronautical details for Flying Finish (1966), she took flying lessons. "I had never touched a small airplane before, and I absolutely loved it," says Mary, who ended up starting her own air-charter business—which she later sold—in 1975. For Reflex (1980), Mary learned photography—and now she takes her husband's book-jacket photos. For Driving Force she hung around the local computer store investigating computer viruses. But, notes Dick, "she's told me she's not going to do any underwater research if I start writing about submerged things."
Mary can also, if needed, pop Dick's shoulder back into place when Francis, who's still fit though no longer rides, dislocates it doing simple tasks—a skill she perfected during his nine-year career as a champion steeplechase jockey. The son of a jockey turned horse dealer, Francis grew up in Pembrokeshire, Wales. After serving as a pilot in Africa during World War II, he returned to Britain and began racing in 1947 at age 25.
That same year, he married Mary Brenchley, an honors graduate of London University who barely knew how to ride. Both sets of parents thought the match would be disastrous, as the two had little in common. But, says Mary, "it didn't matter to us. We just liked being together." In 1953, Francis was appointed jockey for the Queen Mother (with whom he now sometimes sits when he attends races in England), making champion—winning more races than anyone else—that year. Three years later, a spectacular spill in the last few yards of the Grand National cost him the race but also brought Francis to the attention of a literary agent, who suggested he write his autobiography.
Having little formal education, Francis was apprehensive. Mary encouraged her husband to start writing things down "as though you were telling it to your uncle" and promised to check the spelling and grammar. She has been his editor ever since.
In 1957 The Sport of Queens appeared, and Francis also began writing a newspaper column. But, Mary told Dick, "we've got two sons to educate, the carpets are wearing thin and the cars are beginning to knock. If you were ever going to write a novel, now's the time." Francis decided to try his hand at a mystery. "I saw people buying them at train stations," he recalls. "And I thought, 'That's the field to get into; I can do that.' And I can, apparently."
In 1962 his first mystery, Dead Cert, based in part on his own racing experiences, was an instant success. Best-seller No. 2, Nerve, appeared in 1964, and, says the author, "there's been one every fall since." Francis's elder son, Merrick, 42, who owns a horse transport business in England, keeps him up to date on racing matters; son Felix, 39, recently quit his job as a high school physics teacher in England to become his father's business manager.
In 1983, in search of a climate more hospitable to Mary's asthma, the Francises moved from Oxfordshire, England, to Florida. In Francis' off months, the couple travel together, sometimes researching locales for the next book. But when January rolls around, the writer will settle in on his balcony. Francis says he feels like quitting every year, but, as always, Mary urges him on. "I think, 'Oh, I've got all this work to do.' And Mary says, 'Oh, go on, write it.'" At this rate, he admits, "I might go on to the beginning of the next century."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3391
SOURCE: "Dead Funny: The Lighter Side of Dick Francis," in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 76-81.
[In the following essay, Schaffer discusses the humor found in Francis's novels.]
Since Dick Francis published his first mystery novel in 1962, he has gained a world-wide audience of devoted readers. The critics who have written articles about him over the years put into words what his fans feel. Paul Bishop, for example, comments on Francis's skillful pacing, attributing that ability to "what he learned about pacing a horse" during his career as a steeplechase jockey. Michael Stanton approves of his "exquisite variations of setting, plot, and psychology" and notes the role violence plays in his novels. Charles Gould praises him for his "tight plotting" and "the strongly-marked and individual style which makes such storytelling into literary art." And Marty Knepper analyzes the considerable literary risk-taking found in his novels.
No reviewer, however, has ever described Francis as a notably humorous writer. And yet, humor is as integral a part of his novels as action and violence. Every one of his mysteries is laced with humor, not the slapstick or farcical kind deriving from eccentric characters or absurd situations, but clever verbal humor that most often takes the form of acerbic observations of human nature or clever retorts in dialogue. Whatever shape the humor takes, it contributes integrally to the effective development of character and mood.
In his essay "Comedy and the British Crime Novel," H. R. F. Keating describes five types of comedy found in British crime novels: the traditional, the witty, the donnish, the farcical, and social comment. Of the five, Francis uses traditional and witty forms of humor most often along with less frequent one-liners that clearly constitute social comment. According to Keating, traditional humor incorporates wordplay of all sorts, deflationary humor of the gentle type and whimsy. The witty category includes elegant humor of a lightly darting character and the casually conversational tone of typical British understatement. These characteristics can be seen to a greater or lesser degree in all of Francis's novels, regardless of the uses he puts his humor to, beginning with his first novel, Dead Cert.
Dead Cert tells the story of a young steeplechase jockey from (then) Rhodesia, Alan York, and his investigation into the death of a close friend in a racing fall. The action is complicated by Alan's relationship with a wealthy, upper-class woman and her family, while further dimensions of Alan's character emerge through his relationship with the dead jockey's wife and children, with whom he boards when he is in England.
In this novel, as in so many others, Francis uses humor as a method of developing characterizations and relationships between his characters, helping his readers to gain insights into the protagonists' inner lives, especially their motivations and feelings for others. He describes major and even minor characters by what their sense of humor reveals about them.
Dead Cert's protagonist, Alan York, is developed as a character through his use of "typical British understatement," which reveals the jockey's casual professionalism in the face of injury and pain. This is a trait Francis is familiar with firsthand from his racing days, and which he uses to good effect in all of his novels, creating a series of incredibly stout and stoic protagonists. What is especially interesting about this use of humor to reveal character is that it is the narrator himself who does the revealing and must do so without appearing to brag about his strength in the face of pain.
For example, after a serious fall from his horse during a steeplechase, Alan is in the hospital, discussing his condition with his doctor:
"What is wrong with me, exactly?" I asked.
"Concussion is what has affected your memory. As to the rest of you," he surveyed me from head to foot, "you have a broken collar-bone, four cracked ribs and multiple contusions."
"Nothing serious, thank goodness," I croaked.
He opened his mouth and gasped, and then began to laugh. He said, "No, nothing serious. You lot [jockeys] are all the same. Quite mad."
An example of the way Francis uses humor in developing even minor characters can be seen in one of the villains in Dead Cert, a fellow jockey named Sandy Mason, who at first seems perfectly harmless (in spite of some unscrupulous dealings in fixing races) thanks in large part to his constant cheerfulness and broad sense of humor. "His aggressiveness in races had got him into hot water more than once with the Stewards, but he was not particularly unpopular with the other jockeys, owing to his irrepressible, infectious cheerfulness."
Even when Sandy makes a mistake, no one blames him for it because he doesn't take it—or himself—seriously and provides a lively source of entertainment in the changing room. In the following incident, Francis uses Sandy's informal vocabulary and lower-class dialect as a further source of amusement, even including Cockney rhyming slang (i.e. "half-inched" for "pinched") as part of the overall humor:
"Which of you sods has half-inched my balancing pole?" he roared in a voice which carried splendidly above the busy chatter to every corner of the room. To this enquiry into the whereabouts of his whip, he received no reply.
"Why don't you lot get up off your fannies and see if you're hatching it," he said to three or four jockeys who were sitting on a bench pulling on their boots. They looked up appreciatively and waited for the rest of the tirade. Sandy kept up a flow of invective without repeating himself until one of the valets produced the missing whip.
"Where did you find it?" demanded Sandy. "Who had it? I'll twist his bloody arm."
"It was on the floor under the bench, in your own place."
Sandy was never embarrassed by his mistakes. He roared with laughter and took the whip. "I'll forgive you all this time, then."
The true nature of Sandy's humor, however, is a good deal darker; his cheerfulness is a facade to distract others and cover up his less honest tendencies. This is initially revealed by another character, a sleazy jockey named Joe Nantwich, who tells Alan that Sandy tipped him off his horse during a recent race. "'Lucky for me I hit a soft patch or I might have broken my neck. It wasn't funny. And that bloody Sandy,' he choked on the name, 'was laughing. I'll make him laugh on the other side of his bloody face'." This revelation alerts readers that Sandy is not what he seems, and that perhaps other characters in the novel are not, either, no matter how benign they appear.
Dead Cert also illustrates a second major use of humor in Francis novels: to provide comic relief when the going gets grim, as it often does. The relief here takes the form of interludes between the action, giving the reader (and the protagonist) both a breathing space and further insight into the various characters' relationships and environments.
Since Alan York has been living with the family of the jockey recently killed in a racing fall, he has become an intimate part of the household. The dead jockey's three children—uncommonly precocious youngsters—are very attached to him. Each time the mystery takes a nasty turn—a racing injury or a roughing up—Alan returns to the house for a relaxed and whimsical respite with the children. In one such instance, after Alan has been waylaid by the villains and "persuaded" not to investigate his friend's death any further, he returns home to consider what to do next.
I played poker with the children and lost to Henry because half my mind was occupied with his father's affairs.
Henry said, "You aren't thinking what you're doing, Alan," in a mock sorrowful tone as he rooked me of ten chips with two pairs.
"I expect he's in love," said Polly, turning on me an assessing female eye. There was that, too.
"Pooh," said Henry. He dealt the cards.
"What's in love?" said William, who was playing tiddly-winks with his chips, to Henry's annoyance.
"Soppy stuff," said Henry. "Kissing, and all that slush."
"Mummy's in love with me," said William, a cuddly child.
"Don't be silly," said Polly loftily, from her eleven years. "In love means weddings and brides and confetti and things."
"Well, Alan," said Henry, in a scornful voice, "you'd better get out of love quick or you won't have any chips left."
William picked up his hand. His eyes and mouth opened wide. This meant he had at least two aces. They were the only cards he ever raised on. I saw Henry give him a flick of a glance, then look back at his own hand. He discarded three and took three more, and at his turn, he pushed away his cards. I turned them over. Two queens and two tens. Henry was a realist. He knew when to give in. And William, bouncing up and down with excitement, won only four chips with three aces and a pair of fives.
Odds Against makes use of another form of comic relief, black humor, both to pace the action and to provide acerbic commentary on it. Ex-jockey Sid Halley, whose hand has been crippled in a racing fall, is learning to cope with his disfigurement, both physical and mental, while working for an investigative firm, the Radnor Agency, as a private investigator. The novel centers on one case in particular: the attempt by a wealthy businessman to take over a racecourse through illegal methods. Sid's sidekick and assistant on the case, Chico Barnes, is a lower-class character designed largely for purposes of comic relief through black humor and large doses of ironic irreverence.
Very early in the novel, Sid has been shot in the stomach by a small-time crook he'd been following, and Chico comes to visit him in the hospital to "cheer him up," revealing at the same time the closeness and mutual understanding between the two characters that allow him to tease Sid in such an apparently callous way:
[Chico] wandered on [around the hospital room]. "Haven't you got a telly then? Cheer you up a bit, wouldn't it, to see some other silly buggers getting shot?" He looked at the chart on the bottom of the bed. "Your temperature was one hundred and two this morning, did they tell you? Do you reckon you're going to kick it?"
"Near thing, from what I've heard. Jones-boy [another detective in the Radnor Agency] said there was enough of your life's blood dirtying up the office floor to make a tidy few black puddings."
I didn't appreciate Jones-boy's sense of humor.
Blood Sport also makes use of black humor as comic relief and as a form of running commentary by the narrator/protagonist, who is a suicidal government counter-espionage agent. Things have not gone well for Gene Hawkins, whose wife has left him, whose life is in constant danger from a variety of enemies, and who purposely lives in a depressing flat with dingy furnishings. During the course of the novel, Gene begins to regain an interest in life as he tries to protect a wealthy American horse breeder, Dave Teller, and investigates the reasons for assassination attempts against him.
Early in the novel, Gene saves Teller from drowning in a boating "accident." Peter, the young son of Gene's boss, has been taking pictures all day, but failed to record either the accident or the suspicious couple who may have been responsible for it. Gene comforts Peter about his photography skills through a bit of black humor that may be lost on the boy, but not on the reader:
"A fire," I agreed seriously, "would anyway make a much better picture than just people drowning, which they mostly do out of sight."
Peter nodded, considering me. "You know, you're really quite sensible, aren't you?"
Blood Sport also exhibits Francis's occasional use of humorous social commentary. In this case, the commentaries are both psychological and social in nature, demonstrating Francis's keen eye for human nature in individuals and in groups. One of the characters, blissfully naive about criminal behavior, is described this way:
Like most law-abiding citizens, she had not grasped that a criminal mind didn't show, that an endearing social manner could coexist with fraud and murder. "Such a nice man," the neighbors say in bewilderment, when Mr. Smith's garden is found to be clogged with throttled ladies. "Always so pleasant."
A much more cutting social observation (not yet outdated in 1967) reflects Francis's ongoing concern with relations (and frictions) between social groups. Gene is breaking into the house of two of the villains for a little sabotage, and as he cases the neighborhood, he notices that "beside one of [the swimming pools] a woman in two scraps of yellow cloth lay motionless on a long chair, inviting heatstroke and adding to a depth of suntan which would have got her reclassified in South Africa."
Blood Sport is one of Francis's darker novels, but even so, there are moments of lighter humor and even a touch of whimsy. For example, a company that rents trailers a la U-Haul is called Snail Express, with the motto: "Carry your house on your back, but let us take the weight." And later in the novel, Gene and his temporary American partner in the investigation, Walt, are finally beginning to like each other, after a period of getting past some major differences in personality and operating style. Late one night, when Walt invites Gene to his room for a drink, Francis uses an intentionally (and humorously) mixed metaphor to describe his reaction: "I wasn't sure that I wanted to, but he smiled suddenly, wiping out all resentments, and one didn't kick that sort of olive branch in the teeth."
Readers can be sure a Francis character is trouble when he lacks a sense of humor. In The Edge, which is set on the Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train across Canada, one of the wealthy horse owners is being blackmailed over a particularly cruel prank his son Sheridan pulled at his private school. Sheridan's more serious character defects are foreshadowed by his nonexistent sense of humor.
Nell sat opposite Sheridan Lorrimore, who seemed to be telling her that he had wrapped his Lamborghini round a tree recently and had ordered a new one.
"Tree?" Nell said, smiling.
He looked at her uncomprehendingly. Sheridan wasn't a great one for jokes.
In this novel, as in Dead Cert, the narrator's own character is revealed through his sense of humor. This time, however, it is another character who comments on the protagonist's humorous personality, providing an insight that illuminates his solitary nature and need for privacy, traits which stem from his inherited wealth and his efforts to deal with it.
"There's something about you that's secret … ultra-private. As if you didn't want to be known too well … You always have jokes in your eyes," she said. "And you never tell them."
In a Francis novel, written as they are by an eminent exjockey, even the horses become characters with distinct personalities that are occasionally revealed through humor. In Break In, protagonist Kit Fielding has to ride an extremely stubborn horse, North Face, in a race. The experience is described in ironic, affectionate, gently "deflationary," and very realistic terms:
Dramatic pictures of Fielding being bucked off before the start were definitely not going to be taken. I called the horse a bastard, a sod and a bloody pig, and in that gentlemanly fashion the race began.
He was mulish and reluctant and we got away slowly, trailing by ten lengths after the first few strides. It didn't help that the start was in plain view of the stands instead of decently hidden in some far corner. He gave another two bronco kicks to entertain the multitude, and there weren't actually many horses who could manage that while approaching the first fence at Cheltenham.
Hot Money makes good use of several humorous devices. The murder victim, Malcolm Pembroke's unpopular fifth wife Moira, was found suffocated in her greenhouse; in life she was a self-serving gold-digger, the perfect target for Francis's black humor, delivered through the narrator, Malcolm's son Ian:
Malcolm's personal alibi for Moira's death had been as unassailable as my own, as he'd been in Paris for the day when someone had pushed Moira's retroussé little nose into a bag of potting compost and held it there until it was certain she would take no more geranium cuttings.
This novel also showcases one of Francis's fortes, what Keating calls a traditional humor hallmark: word-play of all sorts. Francis's careful use of language and poetic devices such as similes, metaphors, irony, personification, and synecdoche produces humor and enlightening characterization with economy, mostly taking the form of acerbic one-liners commenting on characters and events in scathing detail.
Describing a private detective, for example, Francis comments, "His gray suit looked old and uncared for and his shoes had forgotten about polish. He looked as much at home in a suite in the Savoy as a punk rocker in the Vatican." And after Malcolm's family manor has been bombed, a flock of reporters descends on the estate and on the family members, going from one to the next, trying to extract juicy tidbits:
"The reporters, having sucked the nectar from Gervase [one of Ian's brothers], advanced on Malcolm and on the gardener and the superintendent."
Over the years, Francis's sense of humor seems to have mellowed slightly, certainly not losing the bite of his early novels, but with more frequent appearances of whimsy, a gentler form of humor. The Edge has some of the clearest examples of whimsical humor to be found in Francis's novels. Tor Kelsey, an investigator of racing crimes, is traveling aboard the Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train, posing as an actor playing a waiter who is part of the mystery being performed for the guests. Before leaving Toronto, Tor takes the event's organizer, Nell, out to dinner at a restaurant called the Fluted Point People.
The waiter, who must have been asked a thousand times, said the fluted point people had lived on this land ten thousand years ago. Let's not worry about them, he said.
Nell laughed and I thought of ten thousand years and wondered who would be living on this land ten thousand years ahead. Fluted points, it transpired, described the stone tools in use over most of the continent: would our descendants call us the knife and fork people?
On board the train, security around the horse car is fierce, under the guard of a woman whom the conductor calls the "dragon-lady." Francis uses Tor's puckish sense of humor as a whimsical counterbalance to the seriousness of the guard and to the potential danger of the whole journey. Tor's stage name on the train is Tommy.
[The guard] produced a clipboard with a sheet of ruled paper attached. "Sign here," she said. "Everyone who comes in here has to sign. Put the date and time."
I signed Tommy Titmouse in a scrawl and put the time.
More whimsy is evident in Tor's description of the horse car itself: "A couple of grooms sat around on bales while their charges nibbled their plain fare and thought mysterious equine thoughts."
A colleague of mine, passing my office as I was looking at Proof, told me that he'd read that novel and been surprised at how funny it was, particularly the ongoing theme of the hero visiting pub after pub, becoming increasingly tipsy while tasting various wines and liquors for the police. His comment sums up for me the mistaken impression that infrequent readers of Francis often have: all action and no laughs. Those of us who are more familiar with the range of his writing know that, while some of his novels are indeed funnier than others, the thread of humor runs through every one. Francis is a writer who takes neither himself nor the mystery genre so seriously that he doesn't enjoy poking some gentle fun at both and letting his readers in on the joke. Judging by his books, Dick Francis is a very funny man indeed, and failing the company of the man himself, his books are a very close second best.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349
SOURCE: A review of Driving Force, in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 26, No. 3, Summer, 1993, p. 103.
[In the following review. Simpson asserts that "Francis always delivers a story you can bet on" as he does with Driving Force.]
Like a good race horse that always finishes in the money, Dick Francis always delivers a story you can bet on. His latest, Driving Force, is no exception. Again we have that winning formula: a decent, resourceful and courageous hero finds himself pitted against an evil force, which he ultimately overcomes. And, of course, some aspect of the horse racing industry is involved.
In this case, Freddie Croft, an ex-jockey, owns a business that transports horses. It's one thing when a hitchhiker dies of a heart attack in one of Croft's vans. But when an intruder searches the van, Croft knows something is up. Then the mysterious death of his maintenance man is too much of a coincidence. Croft's investigation leads to malicious destruction of his office and computer records, a senseless deliberate collision of his prized Jaguar into his sister's helicopter, and his being assaulted and subsequently dumped into the sea, where he nearly drowns.
Croft knows that some sort of virus is being transported, first because the deceased hitchhiker's thermos contained some tubes holding a liquid virus, and second because of the secret compartments discovered under his vans. The question is what was transported under there and why. The computer records might help discover the truth, but they were destroyed. Only Croft knows that he had a back-up disk locked in his safe. Imagine how a few well-placed viruses can debilitate good horses, and, in turn, affect the outcome of the races.
Francis builds his story skillfully, presenting an interesting variety of characters, some good and appealing, others unpleasant and possessing evil. The title, in fact, refers not to racing a horse, but to man's capacity for evil, that force within that obsessively drives an evil person to do what he or she does. It's always in a Francis novel, and it's always reassuring to see it defeated in the end.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 316
SOURCE: A review of Decider, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXI, No. 15, August 1,1993, p. 966.
[In the following review, the critic lauds Francis's Decided as one of his most satisfying recent books.]
Francis's newest suspenser (his 32nd) is typical not only in its racetrack setting, but in its doubling of the hero's mildly dysfunctional family (he and his diffident wife are held together only by their brood of six sons) with another family of deep-dyed villains.
Because his mother Madeline was once married into the fractious Stratum family, owners of the Stratton Park racecourse, architect/builder Lee Morris, a restorer of ruined houses, owns a small number of voting shares in the course. His long-standing revulsion from Madeline's wife-beating first husband Keith Stratton has kept him away from the family—especially from his half-sister Hannah, a child of marital rape—and, despite the pleas of course manager Roger Gardner, he intends to keep his distance even when Keith's father, Lord William Stratton, dies. But an invitation to a meeting of the shareholders leads to an unexpected request from matriarchal Marjorie Binsham, William's sister—to look into the question of whether the outdated grandstands really need replacing—and while he's poking around along with his five oldest sons, an explosion rocks the stands and nearly kills him. Sabotage, of course; but was the culprit habitual animal-rights picketer Harold Quest, or one of the Stratton heirs—Keith himself, his despised twin Conrad (the new head of the family), their ineffectual brother Ivan—or one of their children—spiteful unwed mother Hannah, sullen jockey Rebecca, insouciant Dart, or troublemaking Forsyth?
Francis's biggest coup here is his success in delineating shades and varieties of wickedness in the superbly monstrous Strattons. Despite an unconvincing hint of May-December romance for his fatalistic hero, this is the most elaborate and satisfying of his recent books—a winner from the starting gate to the last hurdle.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054
SOURCE: "Racing All the Way to the Bank," in The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1993, p. 40.
[In the following review, Donleavy compares and contrasts Francis's Decider and William Murray's We're Off to See the Killer.]
My own long-term interpretation of the writing trade has been that it is the turning of one's worst moments into money. And in Dick Francis and William Murray we have two writers who are ambidextrous, so to speak, and indeed are turning both their best and worst moments into revenue. These authors come out of their corners jabbing you instantly in the imagination and setting on edge your state of expectancy as they unfold with complacency-piercing words the contrasting worlds of horse racing on each side of the Atlantic. In Decider, Mr. Francis gives his somewhat more polite version, peopled by aristocrats in their country mansions. In We're Off to See the Killer, Mr. Murray gives us a rougher picture of lust and venery, peopled by a tougher-sounding brand of folk whose abodes are where their hats hang.
Resentfully blaming the genre because it sells so well and makes its creators rich, one sometimes wonders if the so-called literary world is out to ruin literature that can be so readily read, like these quite gripping books by two of the best writers in the business. For I somehow imagine that this must be the most exacting form for the literary craftsman, with every word you write there on the page forever to be used against you by your admiring but aware-eyed aficionados. But both Mr. Francis and Mr. Murray are clearly expert, even down to one of two stereotypical characters, as you would expect to find in the racing world. And there are no literary nonsense descriptions. Their words are precise, vivid and as brilliant literary as you can get.
Any mention of Dick Francis to one of his readers brings unrestrained eruptions of enthusiasm of every pleasant kind. Of course, Mr. Francis already enjoys the patronage of members of the British royal family, who eagerly devour his words—not a bad recommendation. But then on the other side of the Atlantic I imagine President Clinton to be a fan of William Murray's, and if he isn't yet, let me suggest We're Off to See the Killer instead of budget deficits for his bedside reading. Mr. Murray's hero, Shifty Lou Anderson, is a magician who bets on horses. In Mr. Murray's expert writing, there are many suspicious goings-on that even touch on the contemporary, with a corporation supplying arms to the former Yugoslavia.
We're Off to See the Killer has a much more carnal-minded and complicated plot than Decider. However, Mr. Francis is not far behind Mr. Murray in these matters. He comes from behind and rides at his shoulder, as it were, and in the final furlong his fast pace makes up for the lack of Mr. Murray's riotous sexual romping. With his hero an architect restoring ruins, Mr. Francis comes down the stretch with a hint of incest, wife beating and rape, edging up to be nose and nose with Mr. Murray and adding a nice touch of British morality, which, in your best aristocratic family tradition, has always meant keeping scandal quiet and paying to preserve a good name. In Decider, we can learn not only of horse racing but also of the behind-the-scenes business of running a racecourse and the internecine family disputes it can involve, which produce a fiery and violent climax.
In reviewing these two highly commendable works, I have to admit an ignorance, not of horses or racing but of this genre. And I would have once imagined that purveyors of this form of fiction had a much easier time than the so-called literary authors in putting together their stories. And I would have thought them a different breed had I not once actually encountered one of these writers and found him to be the most dedicated and serious of literary men. Such types are exemplified by Mr. Murray's and Mr. Francis' rapier use of words and the scrupulous attention paid to their authentic settings and how intimately they examine and know the worlds they write about.
The revelation happened during the more sumptuous days of television years ago, on a rainy Sunday morning in Manchester, England. The previous night, a public relations officer separately invited two writers to appear, representing the opposite, hostile sides on the question of obscenity. The intention of the program was to contrast a so-called serious author whose work had been banned with one who had become noted for his so-called less serious fiction and was not banned. The two antagonists were staying overnight in Manchester's best hotel. Informed that a chauffeured limousine was available to take them separately to the studio the next morning, each man declined, deciding instead to walk and find his own way to the television station through Manchester's then quite grim smog-bound and anonymous streets. In the drizzle the men arrived to confront each other on the entrance steps of the television studio.
I was one of these writers who chose to walk through the gloomy Sunday morning Manchester streets. The other was Ian Fleming. We both stood there wet and dripping, and soon to be contrasted to the nation on that Sunday afternoon, I as a scandalous author published by the Olympia Press in Paris, my book The Ginger Man having been recently ordered by a Manchester magistrate to be destroyed, and Fleming to be made an example of an unbanned purveyor of so-called popular pornography, eagerly and widely read by the British public. But Fleming, who knew he was to be used as a scapegoat, instead of recoiling at the sight of me, smiled and seemed relieved, holding out his hand to shake mine in recognition of the fact that we had both chosen to eschew ease and luxury for the discomfort of the rain in order to see the slums of Manchester on a foggy, cold morning. We both knew that we were equally serious authors whose lives were devoted to writing, which is hardly necessary to say of these two authors, Dick Francis and William Murray, whose books stand them in good stead and allow them to continue to turn their worst and best moments into money.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
SOURCE: "Mysteries," in Washington Post Book World, October 17, 1993, p. 8.
[In the following review, Dowell asserts that Francis's Decider "runs smoothly and efficiently to a tidy conclusion."]
When you pick up Decider, the 34th mystery novel written by Dick Francis, there's no question that you've got a well-established, best-selling author in your hands. The pages are creamy and as thick as cardboard, and the story they tell—full of proper folk, ancient manses, and "squashy" furniture—runs smoothly and efficiently to a tidy conclusion.
The narrator is Lee Morris, an architect-builder with "Le Corbusier technology and humanist tendencies." His specialty is turning ruins into elegant, comfortable habitats. He houses his increasingly estranged wife and their six sons on-site in a converted double-decker bus while he builds a dwelling. Then they move in while the new place is on the market.
The old tithe barn on the Surrey-Sussex border that is their current abode feels like home, however, and that is where the manager of Stratton Park racecourse (you knew we'd get around to horses) finds Lee. He has an old, unhappy family connection with the Strattons, who own the park. More important, he owns eight shares of their racecourse. The fate of the park is a bone of contention among the snarling aristocrats. Thus is Lee, hated by the family, drawn reluctantly into their lives, and a plot.
One might almost suspect that Francis, in penning the Stratton family, had in mind another, more loftily titled clan. The Strattons are certainly in as much disarray as the royals; they even have to cope with a surreptitiously taped phone call used by a blackmailer. Ruled by "a delicate-looking, tough-minded old lady with a touch of tycoon" and plagued by scandal hushed up with their millions, the various Strattons are milquetoasts, wife-beaters, and inept swindlers. They might even number among themselves a murderer, who would stoop to blow up the racecourse grandstand with Lee Morris inside.
The Strattons are also rather stiff creations, constantly striding about in more of a lather than the thoroughbreds. Lee has to look out in particular for Keith, whose beastly behavior long ago to his first wife, Lee's mother, has much to do with everything that keeps Decider trotting along.
Francis far more vividly renders Lee's battalion of boys, who dine on such English delicacies as tinned spaghetti on toast and ultimately become the pawns in a grudge match between their father and his archenemy. There are also some lilting odes to horseflesh.
It's all rather soothing, if not very bright, inspiring the same kind of mysterious affection that settles one down to enjoy a dim but satisfying episode of "Murder, She Wrote." As Lee Morris says of a proper gent who refrains from asking personal questions, "I found his inhibitions restful."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269
SOURCE: A review of Decider, in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 19, 1993, p. 6.
[In the following review, Roraback asserts that despite a slow start Francis's Decider is a good bet.]
A little late out of the gate, Decider, Dick Francis' 32nd (!) novel, is still worth a show bet, maybe even a place. Francis, of course, is the former jockey whose nourishing mysteries center about the racetrack. Decider's slow start, then, can be chalked up to its leading man, builder Lee Morris, who doesn't know a bangtail from an I-beam. Naturally he learns; by Page 241 he's good and hooked on horseflesh: "No architect anywhere could have designed anything as functional, economical, superbly proportioned." But it's a way from there to here.
Morris stumbles into the milieu via seven inherited shares in a racecourse 90% owned by the Strattons, a "noble" British family that makes the Jukeses look like your in-laws from Anaheim. Guilty of everything from pride and prejudice to embezzlement and incest, the Strattons are precariously strung together by the Honourable Marjorie—"a delicate-looking tough-minded old lady with a touch of tycoon"—and by ownership of the track. When the stands are torched, identity of the arsonist is elusive: Pick a Stratton, any Stratton.
Meanwhile Francis is freed to do what he does best. First a swipe at animal-rights picketers who eat hamburgers and wear leather shoes: "Horses run and jump because they like to." Next a nod to female jockeys, "rapt in [their] own private world of risk, effort, metaphysics." Finally: Had it not been for the horse, "the seafarers, Vikings and Greeks, might still rule the world."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292
SOURCE: "Mystery and Suspense From Three Old Hands," in The New York Times, December 20, 1993, p. C15.
[In the following excerpt, Lehmann-Haupt praises Francis's Decider, asserting that Francis "writes winningly about horses."]
At the start of Mr. Francis's Decider, Lee Morris, an Oxford architect and builder, is asked to help save a race track in nearby Swindon from destruction by the wealthy but violently feuding relatives who have inherited it. Knowing he should stay clear, he nevertheless piles five of his six sons, ages 14 to 7, into the family bus and drives them out for a look at the track. Before he knows it, he and one of the boys are nearly killed by an explosion that destroys the grandstand. Which crazed family remember could have done such a thing?
As always, Mr. Francis, a retired jockey, writes winningly about horses. "Imagine the world without them, I thought: history itself would have been totally different. Land transport wouldn't have existed. Medieval battles wouldn't have been fought. No six hundred to ride into a valley of death. No Napoleon. The seafarers, Vikings and Greeks, might still rule the world."
As always, his humans are immediately likable or detestable, as his strong plotting directs them. And as always, Mr. Francis, whose 34th novel Decider is, extends his curiosity to a new interest, here the art of restoring old buildings attractively.
As Lee remarks after riskily rescuing the track's fortunes: "For years I asked hundreds, literally hundreds of people, why they'd bought the old houses they lived in. What was the decider, however irrational, that made them choose that house and no other?"
The deeper question posed by the novel is why people take the crazier chances they do, even to the point of endangering their children.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457
SOURCE: A review of Long Shot, in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 107-8.
[In the following review, Ross discusses survival in Francis's Long Shot.]
Survive is what the first person narrators of Dick Francis' very successful novels do and survival is what Long Shot is all about. Thirty-two year old John Kendall, an erstwhile employee of a travel service specializing in strenuous outings for adventure seekers, has published six survival guides for such trips. An expert photographer, helicopter pilot, specialist in wildernesses hot, temperate, and cold, Kendall has had a first novel (about the survival attempts of people isolated by a disaster) accepted. On the strength of that success, he has severed his ties with the travel service and is attempting to make his living as a writer of fiction.
Francis employs a standard convention: a group of people—related by blood and marriage—living together in an English country house in a small village. His narrator (in order to bolster his meager finances) signs on to do an "as told to" autobiography of the owner of the place, a self-made man with an outstanding reputation as a trainer of steeplechase horses.
Arriving in the dead of winter, Kendall is met at the train by a car that will take him to the country house to meet his employer. The icy roads and a mysterious stray horse combine to put the vehicle and its inhabitants at some peril. Kendall's survival skills are immediately put to the test, and he at once earns the respect of his fellow passengers.
As is always the case in a Francis novel, the reader learns much: here it is about how to use a watch as a compass, or catch trout without fish hooks, or start fires in the rain, or set traps. This lore and more come into play as the plot develops.
Violent death is no stranger to the country house and the disappearance of a promiscuous, young female groom—amidst much business about training horses for the steeplechase and about how one rides in such races—whets the reader's interest. Always inventive, Francis displays here, as he does in his earlier novels, an affinity for the arresting phrase, the novel comparison (e.g. "set nemesis in motion"; "while the combined ghosts of two young women set traps for the flies"; "a pair of binoculars powerful enough to see into the riders' minds").
Kendall is victimized by several assaults, the techniques of which are drawn from the very survival guides he authored. Justice—or at least Dick Francis' version of justice—is finally served, however. As always, Francis' narrative skills hold the reader's attention and provide a strenuous trip for those who prefer to seek their adventures vicariously.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5366
SOURCE: "The Pain: Trials by Fire in the Novels of Dick Francis," in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 349-57.
[In the following essay, Schaffer discusses the use of violence and injury in Francis's novels.]
Dick Francis is no stranger to pain. For over a decade (1946 to 1957), as an amateur and then professional steeplechase jockey in England, he suffered countless bruises and 21 broken bones (not counting ribs) from the inevitable racing falls, followed by horses galloping over him. In his autobiography. The Sport of Queens, Francis details the variety of injuries he suffered over the years, emphasizing the ability of jockeys to heal rapidly and even to ride with broken bones. He takes an athlete's pride in his high tolerance for pain and injury, shrugging them off casually as merely something to be expected in his profession, yet offering fairly frequent and detailed descriptions of them.
In writing his autobiography, Francis honed his descriptive skills not only on racing details and action, but also on his first-hand experiences with pain and injury. When he later turned to writing mystery novels, he continued to use with great impact his first-hand knowledge of the world of British horse racing and the effects of pain and injury. Whether Francis uses pain to add color, action, and realism to the pictures of the racing and criminal worlds he so vividly paints, or to explore the deeper psychological effects of fear, pain, and violence on character, for 31 years and 31 novels he has offered readers insights that only personal experience can provide.
In his earlier novels, Francis follows a fairly straightforward formula of pain set pieces of two basic types: scenes in which the protagonists suffer racing injuries of various sorts, and scenes in which they suffer punishment at the hands of the villains. Since many of the heroes are jockeys and have extensive experience with pain already, they exhibit amazing stoicism in the face of the suffering they endure—or at least they appear stoic to outsiders, for as they usually confide to the reader, they suffer as much as anyone, but have too much pride to show it.
Francis's first novel, Dead Cert, sets the pattern to come. The protagonist, Alan York, is the son of a wealthy Rhodesian trader and has been living with a jockey friend and his family while racing in England. When his friend is killed in a racing fall, Alan gets involved in the search for the murderer and uncovers a protection racket.
Alan's first encounter with violence occurs when some of the villains waylay him and hold him captive in a horse trailer. Their intent is only to warn him off, but Alan has no way of knowing this—he believes he's been kidnapped for ransom and acts accordingly. When Sonny, a young thug, unbuttons Alan's shirt and holds a knife point against his breastbone, instead of standing still, Alan does precisely the last thing anyone would expect of him: "… I thrust forwards and sideways as strongly as I knew how, bringing my knee up hard into Sonny's groin and tearing my arms out of the slackened grasp of the men behind me." He then heads for the door, but doesn't make it. This time the men holding him are not at all gentle, nearly dislocating his shoulders as they pull his arms back. Alan's only reaction to the abuse is to "shut [his] teeth" because "there didn't seem to be much [he] could do about it."
After the thugs have finished delivering their message, they throw Alan from the moving horse-box. Here again, his experience as a jockey serves him well. As he hits the ground, he notes, "It was as well I had had a good deal of practice at falling off horses. Instinctively, I landed on my shoulder and rolled."
A while later, he tells an incredulous local police official why he threw himself into the knife instead of staying still:
"I wouldn't have been so keen if he'd held the point a bit higher up: but it was against my breastbone. You'd need a hammer to get a knife through that. I reckoned that I'd knock it out of Sonny's hand rather than into me, and that's what happened."
"Didn't it cut you at all?"
"Not much," I said.
He shows the inspector a shallow cut with some dried blood and comments to the reader, "Nothing. I hadn't felt it much."
Clearly, Alan's professional experience with injuries has taught him what risks he can safely take and has hardened him to what he considers minor pain or danger. Such stoicism, and the understatement used to express it, is a recurring trait in every Francis protagonist: whether they consider themselves brave or not, outsiders invariably see their actions as courageous.
Dead Cert set the pattern found in many of Francis's subsequent novels of having at least two violent confrontations per book. Much later in the story, the second episode occurs when Alan rides his mount into a wire strung across the racetrack and takes a fall. The fact that he expected the wire to be somewhere on the track and decided to ride anyway plays up his stoicism and sense of duty in the face of danger, another of Francis's favorite character traits. The fall itself isn't so bad, but the horses coming over the fence after him batter him brutally, which, as Francis often points out in his novels, is where the real damage to jockeys most often occurs: "The galloping hooves thudded into my body. One of the horses kicked my head and my helmet split so drastically that it fell off. There were six seconds of bludgeoning, battering chaos, in which I could neither think nor move, but only feel."
Then, to add insult to injury, the villain who had strung the wire across the course walks up to him as he lies on the ground and kicks him: "I heard the ribs crack, and I felt the hot stab in my side"; "He kicked my face, and I went out like a light."
A recurring theme in Francis novels, and one that frequently provides a source of violence, is class conflict. Francis is a keen observer of social manners and attitudes and has mined class differences successfully in most of his books. He plays no favorites, however, when it comes to his protagonists. Sometimes they are lower class, sometimes middle class, and occasionally even members of royalty. For Kicks and Flying Finish provide mirror images of the heroes' class and the class conflicts—in the form of violence—that they face as a result.
The hero of For Kicks, Daniel Roke, may in reality be a successful South African stud farm owner, but his dark coloring and Cockney-sounding accent mark him as lower class to the English upper class, which is exactly why he is offered an undercover job in England investigating the suspiciously energetic performances of certain horses in certain races. Daniel decides to accept the job "for kicks" and is soon working at the stable of one of the suspects in the case, a gentleman trainer named Humber, whose partner in crime, a wealthy sadist named Adams, believes that the lower-class stable hands should be treated like dogs, and who therefore takes great delight in tormenting Daniel. At his first encounter with Daniel, Adams drops his walking slick, and as Daniel bends over to pick it up, pushes him over with his boot, smiling "with malicious enjoyment." Turning to his assistant, Adams says, "'You've got to show them you won't stand any nonsense. Stamp on them whenever you can. This one … needs to be taught a lesson.'"
This scene sets the stage for much more physical abuse of Daniel by Adams throughout the novel, including ear boxing and face slapping, all of which must be stoically home for the sake of his cover (risking personal safety for the greater good). Only at the climax of the novel does Daniel have the freedom to fight back, this time for his life. Even then, the odds are against him, with both villains attacking him while he is unarmed. Fortunately, he has a skill that comes in handy against walking sticks, one that Francis has carefully told the reader about previously: the ability to throw a cricket ball.
There on the desk was the green glass paperweight. The size of a cricket ball. It slid smoothly into my hand, and in one unbroken movement I picked it up, pivoted on my toes, and flung it straight at Humber where he sprawled off balance barely ten feet away.
It took him centrally between the eyes. A sweet shot. It knocked him unconscious. He fell without a sound.
Francis reverses the social roles of protagonist and villain in a later novel, Flying Finish, in which the hero, Henry Grey, the son of an earl, faces the same kind of physical and verbal abuse from someone of a different class that Daniel Roke does, only this time the villain, Billy, is lower class and hates the nobility and the wealthy with vicious passion.
Henry meets Billy when he takes a job as head groom for Yardman Associates, a horse transport firm. On their first trip together, Billy initiates a fistfight with Henry after telling him that "your kind ought not to be allowed." Henry fights back well and wins that battle, telling Billy, "'I don't see any point in fighting you, but I will if you make me. You can forget I'm an earl's son, Billy, and take me as I am, and this is what I am….' I jerked his arm. 'Hard, Billy, not soft. As tough as necessary. Remember it.'"
Henry's victory only sets the scene for later attempts at revenge. On almost every trip the two take together after that, Billy tries to hurt Henry somehow, first dropping a heavy metal bar on his fingers, then dropping peat into Henry's coffee and pouring sugary coffee over his head, and later hitting him "savagely across the shoulders with a spare tethering chain."
As it later turns out, Billy has an added motivation for tormenting Henry: he is also distracting him from a transport racket that Yardman has designed, smuggling spies out of England. But the more basic hatred Billy feels for the nobility makes him especially sadistic when he finally has Henry to himself.
Billy's plan is to torture Henry until the pilot of a hijacked plane takes him where he wants to go. He therefore ties Henry to a horse box and begins shooting him along the ribs, showing off his shooting ability—not deep enough to break the bone, just enough to hurt like hell. Henry takes this torture stoically, and it's this stoicism that saves his life, for Billy is so determined to make him beg for mercy that he keeps him alive, rather than killing him quickly and surely.
In fact, the fate Billy has planned for Henry is turned against him: he has chained a can of petrol to Henry's ankle and made him dig his own grave. Just as he flicks his cigarette lighter to set Henry ablaze, Henry, who has managed to sever the chain with the shovel he was using, throws the can of petrol at Billy and sets him ablaze. As Billy drops his gun and runs for help, Henry follows.
Billy is burned, but not dead. At this point, Francis departs from the normally ultra-ethical protagonists he usually portrays. Henry has a choice: to shoot or not to shoot. Another true-blue hero might have spared Billy's life and left him alive to possibly interfere with his flight to safety. Henry is more pragmatic than that.
[Billy] stared unbelievingly at me and then at his gun in my hand. His mouth shut with a snap; and even then he could still raise a sneer.
"You won't do it," he said, panting.
"Earls' sons," I said, "learn to shoot."
"Only birds." He was contemptuous. "You haven't the guts."
"You're wrong, Billy. You've been wrong about me from the start."
I watched the doubt creep in and grow. I watched his eyes and then his head move from side to side as he looked for escape. I watched his muscles bunch to run for it. And when I saw that he finally realized in a moment of stark astonishment that I was going to, I shot him.
On one level, this outcome is highly satisfying, pure revenge against a truly evil character, his own sadistic desires turned back upon him sadistically. There is no doubt that Billy deserves to die, but Francis has made his execution problematic by having Henry shoot him in cold blood, not entirely in self-defense, not in the heat of the moment. Does his victory make Henry a hero or a cold-blooded killer? Whichever, this violent action reflects basic changes in his character: he has done something he never would have done before these events changed his life.
In the sequence of events leading up to Billy's death, Francis illustrates explicitly another theme running through his novels: underestimating the hero's abilities and toughness—the amount of pain and suffering he can take and that he can inflict. Yardman, the chief villain of Flying Finish, has the acumen to see beyond Henry's patrician surface, telling him at one point, "'You look so gentle, dear boy…. So misleading, isn't it?'" and warning Billy, "'Take no chances, Billy, do you understand? You underestimate this man. He's not one of your fancy nitwits, however much you may want him to be.'" Billy discovers the truth of this the hard way.
In this novel, there is no racing violence, but there is a graphic scene depicting what can happen when a horse goes berserk on an airplane. Some horses become so frightened by the noise and motion that they try to escape their boxes, with possibly fatal consequences in a pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet. Francis carefully lays the groundwork for the later scene by describing several uneventful trips, then pulls out all the stops.
On this particular trip, a horse has begun kicking its box to pieces in its panic, trying desperately to escape and threatening to unbalance the plane or put a hoof through a window. Henry takes decisive action. Because there is no humane killer on board and drugs are unpredictable on horses, Henry uses a carving knife from the galley to slit the horse's throat as it breaks through its box and lunges toward him. He manages to hit the carotid artery,
[b]ut I couldn't get out of his way afterwards. The colt came down solidly on top of me, pouring blood, flailing his legs and rolling desperately in his attempts to stand up again.
His mane fell in my mouth and across my eyes, and his heaving weight crushed the breath in and out of my lungs like some nightmare form of artificial respiration….
The blood went on pouring out, hot sticky gallons of it, spreading down the gangways in scarlet streams. Alf cut open one of the hay bales and began covering it up, and it soaked the hay into a sodden crimson-brown mess. I don't know how many pints of blood there should be in a horse; the colt bled to death and his heart pumped out nearly every drop.
This description is graphic, extremely unpleasant, and gut-wrenchingly exciting. It also brings home the dangers of air transportation for large animals, something the average reader is unaware of and therefore will find lends authenticity to the story.
As Albert Wilhelm points out in his analysts of "Fathers and Sons in Dick Francis's Proof," many Francis novels "examine the growth of an individual's character" and "focus on the theme of maturation," following the youthful protagonist as he successfully meets "a series of crucial tests" on his way to attaining a new level of maturity. Henry Grey fits this pattern perfectly, as Wilhelm demonstrates in his article "Finding the True Self: Rites of Passage in Dick Francis's Flying Finish." Wilhelm sees more in the violence of this story than mere background color or action to keep the reader interested. He points out the parallels between Henry's personal growth throughout the novel and classic "stories of initiation documenting the rites of passage of … characters." As Wilhelm sees it, Henry Grey is typical of Francis's protagonists, who are "often young men … who forge new identities as a result of their involvement with criminal activities." In this interpretation of events, Billy's torture of Henry by shooting along his ribs becomes "scarification on the chest" and "a trial by fire" (which also becomes literal later in the novel), the colt's blood pouring over him becomes "a bath in animal blood," and Henry's shooting of Billy becomes "the killing of a foe," all traditional elements of initiation ceremonies. At the end of the novel, after successfully surviving all of these experiences, Henry has matured; he is ready to take on a new identity as an adult and begin a much more fulfilling life than his earlier, emotionally limited one.
Francis's pain set pieces most often center on beatings that the heroes undergo at the hands of the villains. Occasionally, however, the punishment takes a different form, with added psychological elements. In Smokescreen, for example, the protagonist is an actor whose opening scene foreshadows (and in fact inspires) the peculiar form of torture inflicted on him at the novel's climax. Edward Lincoln begins the novel handcuffed to the steering wheel of a car as part of a film he's making, and ends up in the same position in a desert in South Africa after agreeing to help a close family friend investigate the poor performance of some racehorses she owns. For 18 pages, Francis explores every aspect of a man chained in one position, with no water, food, or bathroom facilities, no chance to stretch, and no escape from the heat. He describes, in Link's own words, the physical and mental anguish as they grow more and more unbearable. The passage is a feat of empathy that involves readers completely, far more effectively than the more mundane beatings and shootings normally featured.
Here also, however, Francis emphasizes the physical aspects of the torment. Link describes "legs like lead and ankles swollen to giant puffballs," an abdomen "agonizingly distended with gas," and eyes "like sandpaper when the lachrymal glands dried up." Fortunately, Link has strong reserves of physical strength and mental resourcefulness. He survives physically until help comes by condensing water in a plastic sandwich bag and mentally by writing down a complete account of the crime, which he has now solved. At the end of the novel, Link has learned a great deal about physical suffering and has once again shown the kind of self-sacrifice for the greater good that Francis specializes in: after he's rescued, he insists on getting back in the car (still unwashed) in order to catch the villain, perhaps the hardest thing he's ever done.
Francis earlier explored the themes of maturation and growth through suffering in Odds Against. Here again the catalyst is violence, first a racing accident, then a shooting, and then a final act of brutality that changes the life of the protagonist permanently. Sid Halley was a professional steeplechase jockey until a fall from a horse smashed his hand and ended his racing career. Sid keeps his hand, now deformed and useless, carefully hidden in his pocket and works halfheartedly for the Racing section of Hunt Radnor Associates, a private investigation firm.
At the novel's opening, Sid is lying in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound from a small-time hood breaking into the firm's building—an event which, Sid says, "left me with fire in my belly in more ways than one" and "was the first step to liberation." Because of that shooting, Sid spends some time with his ex-father-in-law, Charles Roland, recuperating and becoming involved in Charles's attempt to foil a shady plot to take over a nearby racecourse for real estate development. And because in the course of this investigation he meets someone else with an even more disfiguring physical handicap, he is forced to. come to grips with his own.
Early in Odds Against, Sid's relationship with the primary villain, wealthy, sadistic Howard Kraye, and his masochistic wife, Doria, is established as the source of ongoing conflict that leads eventually to one of Francis's most violent scenes. From the beginning of their relationship, when Sid is introduced to them in his disguise as the disgraced, illegitimate ex-son-in-law of the wealthy and powerful Charles Roland, the Krayes become fascinated with the idea of humiliating him in every way they can, first by making Sid take his deformed hand out of his pocket ("They both saw from my face that I would hate that more than anything. They both smiled.") and then actually attacking the injury itself ("[Kraye] stiffened his free hand and chopped the edge of it down across the worst part, the inside of my wrist. I jerked in his grasp."). For the sake of his investigation, Sid bears the humiliation stoically, as he has always borne his trials, for, as he says at one point in a summary that speaks for most, if not all, of Francis's heroes,
Always, from my earliest childhood, I had instinctively shied away from too much sympathy. I didn't want it. I distrusted it. It made you soft inside…. So [personal problems] had to be passed off with a shrug, and what one really felt about it had to be locked up tightly inside, out of view. Silly, really, but there it was.
The final showdown between Sid and the Krayes is one of the most horrifying Francis has ever written. Normally, his heroes suffer no permanent damage—broken bones and bruises heal. But not so with Sid. The punishment is so horrible, especially to him, that the jockey's stoicism is broken at last.
The Krayes have tied Sid to a chair, and in order to get the information they need out of him, they torture him with the best weapon they have: his deformed hand.
"We know where he's most easily hurt," [Kraye] said. "That hand."
"No," I said in real horror.
They all smiled.
My whole body flushed with uncontrollable fear. Racing injuries were one thing: they were quick, one didn't expect them, and they were part of the job.
To sit and wait and know that a part of one's self which had already proved a burden was about to be hurt as much as ever was quite something else. Instinctively I put my arm up across my face to hide from them that I was afraid, but it must have been obvious.
Kraye laughed insultingly. "So there's your brave clever Mr. Halley for you. It won't take much to get the truth."
"What a pity," said Doria.
Even faced with the threat to his hand, Sid still lies, and Kraye smashes his wrist with a poker:
… he used all his strength and with that one first blow smashed the whole shooting match to smithereens. The poker broke through the skin. The bones cracked audibly like sticks.
I didn't scream only because I couldn't get enough breath to do it. Before that moment I would have said I knew everything there was to know about pain, but it seems one can always learn…. There had never been anything like it. It was too much, too much. And I couldn't manage any more.
And yet, Sid does manage more. He remains silent when Kraye jerks his wounded hand, telling them "where to go" for the papers they want only when Kraye jolts his hand a second time. The Krayes leave him tied to his chair in the dark, where he has plenty of time to think about the consequences of his capitulation, as well as about torture in general: "To suffer or to talk. The dilemma that stretched back to antiquity…. I didn't understand how anyone could keep silent unto death."
The kicker to all this is, of course, that Sid had planned the entire sequence, knowing that Kraye wouldn't believe his story without the punishment appearing to break him. Instead of sending the villains to the real source of information they want, he sends one of them to the home of a colleague well able to take care of himself, and with a code phrase to serve as a warning.
Sid pays a dear price for his stoicism, of course: his hand has been thoroughly destroyed by the torture, and at the novel's end, it has been amputated. Now, however, rather than always trying to hide a deformity, Sid has been relieved of a burden and is considerably freer to put his life back together and learn to live with a prosthesis, in a way a much more honest handicap to cope with. But Sid's worries about his hands have not ended here, for in the sequel to Odds Against, the novel Whip Hand, they once again play a prominent role in exploring the recurring Francis themes of courage and stoicism in the face of loss, and growth through painful life experiences.
Whip Hand concerns a wealthy aristocrat's plot to impair the performance of top two-year-old racers. As Sid gets closer and closer to the villain, Trevor Deansgate, Deansgate takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps Sid, using a weapon against him that he at first is powerless to fight against: Deansgate has his men hold Sid down with arms outstretched and puts a shotgun at his one remaining good wrist, threatening to shoot his hand right off if he doesn't leave England until after a crucial race. The thought of being without hands, helpless to live independently and do the things for himself that he can still do with only one hand, is more than Sid can take. This form of mental torture works where no mere beating could. He describes his state of mind with vivid clarity:
All the fear I'd ever felt in all my life was as nothing compared with the liquefying, mind-shattering disintegration of that appalling minute. It broke me in pieces. Swamped me. Brought me down to a morass of terror, to a whimper in the soul. And instinctively, hopelessly, I tried not to let it show.
Even at this moment of greatest fear, Sid's major concern is to hide any signs of weakness; his stoicism is so deeply ingrained that he is unable to show emotion even then. He does, however, agree to leave town, and then suffers agonies of shame and self-doubt for his "weakness."
However, true to the Francis code of honor, when Sid returns to England and sees Deansgate's plans continuing unimpeded, he decides to pick up the investigation again, although he is still afraid of the results. In another classic Francis fight, Sid is beaten with a chain until his back has turned to "jelly. A living jelly. Red. On fire. Burning, in a furnace." Sid contemplates the nature of pain and people's coping mechanisms for over an hour until some help comes, but he must still drive three and a half hours to a friend's house before he can get safe medical attention.
Eventually, Sid solves the case and effectively ruins Deansgate's life. At the last, he arrives home to find Deansgate waiting for him, shotgun in hand, ready to carry out his threat. Sid refuses to beg for his hand, in spite of the renewed terror he feels—he says, "I thought numbly that I wasn't so sure, either, that I wouldn't rather be dead." To his surprise and relief, Deansgate does not shoot him—he's had too much time to think about the consequences of maiming or killing a national hero, an ex-champion jockey. He had wanted very badly for Sid to beg him not to shoot him, but, he says, "'I'd forgotten … what you're like. You've no bloody nerves.'" In spite of Sid's battle with fear, cowardice, and self-doubt, he finally wins back his self-respect when Deansgate says to him, "'Isn't there anything … that you're afraid of?'" The answer is yes, but in the end, not enough to make him compromise his unfailing sense of justice.
The variations on Francis's use of pain and violence to provide racing color, supply action to further the plot, and develop themes of growth through suffering have taken increasingly interesting directions over the years. From the earliest beatings, fights, and assaults with deadly weapons, Francis has moved on to concentrate more on disabilities, both physical and psychological, insecurities, and fears of isolation, inadequacy, and loss. Barry Bauska, in a 1978 TAD article, observed that "as a focus of tension physical pain is being supplanted by psychological strain as Mr. Francis himself grows farther and farther away from his riding days." This trend away from the purely physical punishment (even torture) of his earlier novels has continued to an even greater extent in recent years: since the late '80s, Francis has been using more distant, impersonal forms of violence—bombings, fires, or violence against animals rather than prolonged physical assault on the protagonists. There has even been a decrease in the number of violent scenes in recent novels, and those still included seem shorter and more peripheral to the action proper.
In Hot Money, for example, the most violent scenes are childhood memories, a house that explodes while the characters are safely away, and a bomb that goes off accidentally. In The Edge, there is only one real fight scene, and the hero actually wins it handily with a modicum of damage (there is a later scene, as well, where the hero takes some punches without resisting to make the case's outcome more satisfying, another case of the protagonist making physical sacrifices for the good of others). The protagonist in this novel still grows and matures—he is better able to handle personal relationships—but it is not the violence that has changed him. In Straight, much of the violence occurs almost in passing: the hero is mugged, attacked by a woman who believes him to be a burglar, and knocked out by real burglars. (There is, however, a very personal and very exciting fight between protagonist and villain at the end of the novel.) And in Comeback, there are fairly brief violent episodes at the very beginning and end of the novel, with punching and kicking the major action involved, but most of the violence in the novel is done offstage to horses rather than people. The protagonist, Peter Darwin, undergoes very little physical punishment, even when his life is threatened. This is indeed fortunate because Peter is a diplomat, not a fighter (he is, quite likely, the most pacific—and static—protagonist Francis has ever created); as he himself says, "Words were my weapons, not arms."
However, Francis has not completely abandoned explorations of pain and suffering in recent novels. Longshot, in a return to earlier form, has the protagonist shot through the chest with an arrow, followed by a 20-page tour-de-force examination of his painful journey toward help that is entirely the equal of Edward Lincoln's ordeal in the car in Smokescreen.
While there is still plenty of action involved in his more recent mysteries, Francis has also expanded his repertoire of literary techniques to include more development of characters and relationships without violence as the primary catalyst. The reduced emphasis in later novels on describing suffering in graphic detail is a change from the "tortured" heroes of the early Francis, though admittedly not a complete one. Bauska, in his TAD article, sees this widening of focus as a sign of Francis's own growing maturity as a writer, praising him for "becoming less a writer of thrillers and more a creator of literature." Having developed many permutations on scenes of pain, violence, and suffering, Francis is now depending less on the traditional violent elements of detective fiction in order to explore more intently the elements of mainstream fiction: character development, the evolution of relationships, and nonviolent themes of growth, change, and maturation.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432
SOURCE: "Mysteries," in The Washington Post Book World, September 18, 1994, p. X10.
[In the following excerpt, Lipez calls Francis's Wild Horses "pretty enjoyable."]
The movie business is … the setting of Wild Horses, Dick Francis's pretty enjoyable new equestrian thriller…. [H]is nice-guy sleuth, Thomas Lyon, is the serious and well-thought-of director of "Unstable Times," a film based on a real-life (in the book) horsey-set mystery. And the eroticism here is not only central to the plot,… but it's also much more—I'm tempted to say—English.
Francis's 33rd mystery—which on a Francis scale of one-to-10 I'd rate an entirely respectable eight—gets off to an intriguing start when Lyon, in Newmarket for filming, hears the death-bed confession of Valentine Clark, an aged black-smith and old family friend. To Lyon's amazement, Clark asks for absolution for killing someone long ago. The details, however, are mystifying.
It soon develops that there's a connection between the confession and the story on which the film is based. Twenty-six years earlier, a young woman named Sonia was found hanged in a stable. In the novel that speculated on the incident, young Sonia's husband is wrongly accused of causing her death and then cleared. The novelist, who is also the screenwriter, is a pretentious artiste who lounges around the set, bemoaning the liberties that are being taken with his screenplay. He's more interested in Sonia's possible fantasy life—centering on wild horses—than on who might have strung her up.
That's all largely academic until Clark's elderly sister is horribly slashed in her house and attempts are made on Lyon's life by someone who wants to stop the film. Solving the crime is no longer a matter of mere art; it's necessary to save the lives of Lyon and maybe others. So the past is dredged up with a vengeance.
Dick Francis, O.B.E., probably has more medals by now than the average field marshal, but he still has a high old time razzing the English upper classes, a race of ninnies throughout his books. In Wild Horses, they're the usual rum lot, and it's the self-made who get the work done. Francis has lived in Florida and the Caribbean off and on in recent years, so he's started in on our more democratic tyrannies, especially the American insistence on eternal youth if not eternal life. A British doctor in Wild Horses asks a Hollywood actor, "Is it true that in America, if you die of old age, it's your fault?" Francis is so good-natured, the reader may miss the real edge in his consistently interesting voice.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281
SOURCE: "Back in the Saddle Again," in The New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1994, p. 26.
[In the following review, Mortimer praises Francis's storytelling ability in Wild Horses.]
In many ways the writer is made by the day job. Where would Chekhov and Conan Doyle have been without their medical training, or Dashiell Hammet if he hadn't learned about the sleazier side of San Francisco as an operative in the Pinkerton detective agency? If Dick Francis' father hadn't been a steeplechase jockey, and if he hadn't decided to follow his father's breathlessly dangerous profession, we certainly shouldn't have had 33 novels that have entertained millions and won the approval of such as Philip Larkin, the fine but notably grumpy English poet, who was by no means easy to please.
"The mingled smells of hot horse and cold river mist filled my nostrils. I could hear only the swish and thud of galloping hooves and the occasional sharp click of horseshoes striking against each other. Behind me, strung out, rode a group of men dressed like myself in white silk breaches and harlequin jerseys, and in front, his body vividly red and green against the pale curtain of fog, one solitary rider steadied his horse to jump the birch fence stretching blackly across his path." The opening of Dead Cert, his first novel, published in 1962, in fact portrays Dick Francis chasing his subject. In this pursuit he reckoned that he hit ground at 30 miles an hour every 12th ride and suffered a fractured skull, six broken collarbones, five broken noses and no end of shattered ribs. To this day his face looks as though it had been blown in by the wind. As a method of acquiring material for a novel this seems a good deal harder than lying in a cork-lined room, remembering a childhood beach or the taste of a madeleine.
Many years ago Dick Francis the jockey was riding the Queen Mother's horse Devon Loch with the Queen watching, and he had established a lead of 10 lengths at the last fence of the Grand National. Suddenly, 30 yards from the winning post, Devon Loch mysteriously sank to the ground. (Several theories were advanced for the collapse, including the possibility that Devon Loch had suffered a sudden, severe muscular cramp in his hindquarters.) After this disappointment, and many injuries, he decided on the even chancier life of a novelist. What he brought with him from the race track were the crowed-pulling powers of suspense, surprise and the shared enthusiasm to discover who's going to win.
He still talks in the voice of an old steeplechaser, cutting off his final g's. Whereas he once said, "My father said a day's huntin' was better than a day's schoolin'," he now says, "I'm writin' a book a year."
The excitement as well as the pain of his former life have given Dick Francis an extraordinarily clear view of the racing world and the squalors, as well as the beauties, of the English countryside. It's a place where the fields and downs have been defaced by motorways and the old towns wrecked by shopping malls. The villains, bookmakers or dubious trainers, wear camel's-hair coats, drive Bentleys and live in vast spreads of red brick houses, swimming pools illuminated by carriage lamps and white fences. The jockeys, pulling on laddered nylon stockings under their racing boots, or shivering on early-morning rides on the downs, are Spartan. Their idea of a treat is a plate of bacon and eggs and a cup of strong tea after a long fast. They live in bungalows or mobile homes, and their bodies are broken by falls and the bully boys hired by the villains. Their careers are in the hands of the stewards of the Jockey Club, who are not jockeys but upper-crust, elderly men who treat fearless riders as though they were inferior and frequently dishonest servants. On the whole Dick Francis' view of the racing world is not shaped by any inherent assumptions about class. If a lord appears, wearing a tweed suit and a waxed coat, living in a drafty house that smells of wet dog, he's quite likely to turn out to be the source of all villainy.
Philip Marlowe walked down mean streets, and Mr. Francis' heroes frequent some pretty mean race tracks. Raymond Chandler set out the standards of decency he required of the detective: he must be neither tarnished nor afraid. "He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct and inevitability, and certainty without saying it. He must be the best man in his world, and a good enough man for any world." Dick Francis would not express the creed of the mystery-story here so resonantly, but what makes his books attractive is his sense of decency and honorable behavior. He put it more succinctly when he said, "What it comes to is that I never ask my main character to do anything I wouldn't do myself."
One of the results of this is that while in today's world of best sellers you can't get through three pages without stumbling across throbbing members or meeting flowing juices, there's not much sensational sex in the Francis novels. In Banker, the hero and the heroine, although passionately in love, don't sleep together until her husband dies, conveniently, of a brain hemorrhage on the last page. In Dead Cert, the hero kisses the girl he loves discreetly and, although he feels inclined to carry her off to the downs and "behave likes a cave man," he resists the temptation. Perhaps it's inevitable that more sex has crept into the books, occasionally salted with a twist of sadomasochism, but making love still ranks far lower than racing. In his latest work, Wild Horses, the sexual behavior is very rare and exotic; but fortunately it happened long before the book began and the hero, who though a film director is still an extremely decent chap, had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Thomas Lyon has come to Newmarket, "the town long held to be the home and heart of the horse racing industry worldwide," to direct a drama about racing. He has been recruited because he's already made several successful films and because "I'd spent my childhood and teens in racing stables." The film is based on a recent best-selling book, a fictionalized account of a scandal that had occurred in Newmarket 26 years earlier, when the wife of Jackson Wells, a horse trainer, had been found hanging in a stall and her husband was suspected of having killed her. But he was never charged, the film script does not identify a killer and the death remains a mystery that Lyon finds himself increasingly eager to solve.
His pursuit is at first driven by the idea that some sort of resolution would aid the film. And then, inevitably, he finds that his inquiries have stirred up a variety of unappetizing, smarmy characters, among them a killer. Like many of Mr. Francis' heroes, Lyon finally must find the truth to save his life.
We live in a time when many highly regarded and prize-winning novelists have forsaken plot. Stories are regarded as somewhat down-market and fit only for airport bookstands and poolside reading. Stories go with pina coladas and Ambre Solair suntan lotion, proper novels with arugula salads and chardonnay. But the best writers, as well as the most popular, have always known that telling a story is the only way of inducing the reader to turn the pages. Dick Francis takes from Jan. 1 to May 8 each year to write a novel, and his latest, produced at the age of 73, is as compulsive as ever.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421
SOURCE: "High Life and Low In a Pair of Mysteries," in The New York Times, October 20, 1994, p. C19.
[In the following excerpt, Lehmann-Haupt complains that the characters and plot of Francis's Wild Horses are forced.]
At the opening of Dick Francis's latest racetrack thriller, Wild Horses, a dying old man, mistaking a young friend for a priest, asks to be forgiven for killing "the Cornish boy" and leaving "the knife with Derry." The friend goes along with the charade and absolves the dying man, assuming the confession to be senile rambling.
Certainly it would have nothing to do with the movie young man is directing on location nearby in "Newmarket, Suffolk, England, the town long held to be the home and heart of the horseracing industry worldwide." After all, the novel on which the movie is based is only a fictionalized version of a local murder case that remains unsolved. And the film takes such liberties with the book that the novelist is incensed.
So there couldn't be a connection, the narrator thinks at first. "Ah well," he reflects as efforts to stop his film grow increasingly violent. "One can get things wrong."
As always, Mr. Francis has done his homework in telling a story that links his longtime knowledge of horse racing with an unrelated profession, in this case Hollywood film making. In fact, Wild Horses is strikingly more ambitious than the usual Dick Francis, as its narrator strives for a cinematic image of the erotomania he discovers lying behind what his dying friend has confessed.
Unfortunately, what's missing from Wild Horses is the seductive case of plotting that has made most of Mr. Francis's previous thrillers so much fun to read. Unlike Mr. Francis's usual narrator, this one races around like a circus plate-spinner to keep all the parts of the story moving. The characters are so forced that they become caricatures. The plot machinery clanks and sputters.
The novel even strives for what can be read as a defense of Mr. Francis's craft. As the narrator tells another character: "I'm still an entertainer and always will be, I guess … I make the images. I open the door. I can inflame … and I can heal … and comfort … and get people to understand … and for God's sake don't remember a word of this. I've just made it up to entertain you."
But given the way Wild Horses labors, you can't help but feel that by stretching out for meaning Mr. Francis has stumbled on self-consciousness and taken an unusual fall.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
SOURCE: "The Thunder of Racing Hooves Inspires Winning Mysteries," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, No. 234, October 27, 1994, p. 13.
[In the following review, Helmick discusses Francis's love of horses and how he uses it in his novels.]
The Grand National at Aintree is England's greatest steeplechase; in 1956, British jockey Dick Francis lost it in the last 25 yards. The years have not worn away the tinge of regret in his voice as he describes his "darkest day."
But what good fortune for his soon-to-be readers. The loss prompted him to write his autobiography, which in turn has led to a streak of more than 30 best-selling mysteries, most of which incorporate a riding theme.
Indeed, as Francis said when we spoke together recently, horses are never far from his thoughts, and riding has become a kind of allegory for Francis's life: "The main good point of any jockey … is loyalty…. And in life, you do your best for those nearest to you."
He says that this has become a driving force behind his writing as well: "That is the honesty which I aim to preach."
That code often tips the balance in favor of Francis's protagonists. Francis concedes that he ensures his hero always "knows what is right" and that, in the end, "right comes out on top." This holds true in his latest mystery, Wild Horses (currently No. 7 on the Publisher's Weekly fiction bestseller list), in which Thomas Lyon, acting on a friend's dying wish, solves a 25-year-old murder without police help.
Francis needs only to look to the lessons of the track for the persistence he instills in his heroes. The author's own determination led him through numerous defeats and injuries—from which he "always came up smiling"—and earned him status as champion jockey in 1954.
But if Francis were pressed to choose between writing about riding and the rough sport itself, he'd ask for a jockey's life every time.
"There is nothing more satisfying," he says grinning, "than to be on the back of a horse you like very much … and jump into the first fence of a race and then you see all the other fences and think, What a thrill it's going to be…."
All the same, writing hasn't been a bad alternative. Though it isn't as easy as being on horseback—"I was born to the saddle," he explains—the reward of writing bestsellers lasts longer.
Francis doesn't have to go it alone as an author. He has long depended on his wife, Mary, to conduct research. She's mastered everything from merchant banking to painting and airplanes to help out.
And the husband-wife team's creativity shows in quite a few non-equine plots: The hero of The Danger, for example, is a professional negotiator for the release of kidnapping victims. Although he gladly rescues a famous jockey in distress, horses leave him clammy. Unlocking another mystery, Twice Shy, takes physics and Olympic-level riflery. Another book centers on gem smuggling.
Francis's writing has earned him kudos on the racetrack as much as anywhere else, however. The author says several racetracks now sponsor races in his name, adding without fanfare that many British jockeys, who were not yet born when he was champion, view him as a legend. Needless to say, most of them read his books, he says.
Francis's riding success also gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with royalty. He rode for the Queen Mother for several years, and it was her horse Devon Loch that he rode in the 1956 Grand National that was so important for his writing career.
Francis's love for the track in life and on paper comes down to the horses. Wild Horses contains only a brief passage on racing, in which film director Lyon must win the allegiance and trust of local jockeys, extras in his film, by daring them to race. Yet those few pages are among the most gripping in the novel: "There was speed and there was silence. No banter, no swearing from the others. Only the thud of hooves and the brush through the dark birch of the fences. Only the gritting determination and the old exultation," Francis writes.
The "old exultation" lives with Francis, too, though the author falters as he attempts to explain it—as if it were so natural that anyone should understand. Shaking his head impatiently, he stretches to articulate his vast love for riding that permeates his novels. "It isn't actually the fences; it's the way the horse jumps the fences. If you've got a good jumper, it's terrific. You kick him into the fence and throw your heart over and hope you catch it on the other side."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 257
SOURCE: A review of Come to Grief, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXIII, No. 14, July 15, 1995, p. 986.
[In the following review, the critic discusses the return of the protagonist Sid Halley in Francis's Come to Grief.]
Big news for Francis fans: He's broken his rule against recycling heroes and brought back one-handed p.i. Sid Halley (Odds Against, 1966; Whip Hand, 1980) to investigate a series of mutilations of two-year-old ponies. Sid naturally feels close to the equine victims, who've had their off-fore-feet amputated; but he feels even more unnervingly close to the suspect he soon uncovers—his old friend and former racing competitor Ellis Quint, now turned immensely popular TV entertainer. Despite the mountain of evidence that leads to Ellis's arrest, Sid, gagged by England's sub judice rule from discussing the case until the trial begins, falls victim himself to a campaign of smears and revenge so vicious—the weekly paper he's been working with suddenly turns on him in savage columns defending Ellis, and Ellis's father attacks him with an iron bar—that there must be somebody big and well-organized behind the vendetta against him. A world away from the racetracks he used to call home—the closest we get to a race is Sid's laconic comment, "I watched the Derby with inattention. An outsider won"—Sid pokes around after that somebody, risking not only innuendo and hatred, but the loss of his remaining hand.
Francis's 34th novel is grand entertainment with a bittersweet edge his fans haven't seen since his sorely missed hero's last appearance. Welcome back, Sid.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
SOURCE: A review of Come to Grief, in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 102-3.
[In the following review, Shattuck asserts that Francis does not fully explore the emotions and motivations of the villain in his Come to Grief.]
To say that jockey-turned-sleuth Sid Halley solves puzzlers involving horses and horse racing is to repeat what Dick Francis readers know already. To say that he solves them single-handedly is to perpetrate the obvious pun.
Actually, Halley's state-of-prostheses-art left hand comes close to being a co-character in Francis's Halley novels. At some point Sid's amputee status (the hand was lost in a disastrous racing spill) can be expected to become the focus of some character's malicious intent toward Halley-in-whole. A sub-theme of such encounters is people's not uncommon fascination with such physical infirmities. In Sid's dangerous business, morbid interest of this sort can segue to sadism.
Here, the twisted type who's seized by a grim compulsion to wound Halley where he's most vulnerable is a former close friend and fellow jockey who's now an adored media celebrity. What triggers this unsettling episode is Halley's finding and reporting of evidence that Ellis Quint, a genuine charmer, may have perpetrated a series of grotesque mutilations of ponies and horses.
Beleaguered by a pro-Quint public and press—a tabloid paper launches a particularly vicious smear campaign against him—Halley perseveres in pursuing the evidence, even after learning that the mother of the accused has committed suicide, apparently unable to accept what she perceives as Sid's sullying of her innocent son's name.
Steely but not nerveless, Halley suffers both physical danger and guilt for sundering the Quint family, whose patriarch becomes so crazed that he proceeds to stalk his son's accuser with an iron bar, then with a gun.
While dealing with all this, Halley is also striving to give emotional support to another family—that of a woman friend whose nine-year-old daughter is sinking fast from leukemia. Sid's warm rapport with mother and child reminds him poignantly of the failure of his marriage to the beautiful Jenny. Though she has remarried, apparently happily, it's clear that the emotional bond is not completely broken.
One of the delightful perks of a Francis novel is finding oneself diverted by some character's unusual area of expertise. Here, we are introduced to a woman who's a master weaver, known for creating rare, expensive, one-of-a-kind creations from gold and silk. It's a deft Francis touch that one of her museum-worthy pieces, crafted 30 years previously, has ended up wrapped around a pair of shears used to lop off an equine hoof.
Issues of character and morality are also part of the mix. For choosing truth over loyalty to friends, Sid is excoriated. This loss of repute can't help but remind him of earlier, piled-up losses: of the racing career he loved, of his wholeness of body, of the woman he'd married.
Still, as sensitive as Francis seems here to human frailty and to the emotional nuances of his hero, he ends up short-changing readers as to his villain. What impels an otherwise seemingly normal person to commit a series of cruel, bizarre, profitless acts? The explanations contained in the perpetrator's confessional note are unconvincing, and Francis fails to follow through with anything that addresses the psychological riddle. Thus, the book is like an absorbing race with photo-finish in which the central image is too blurred to settle the crucial question.
Last Updated on February 6, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927
Adler, Dick. "Inspector Wexford in top form." Chicago Tribune Books (3 September 1995): 4.
Lauds the well-drawn villains and touching hero of Francis's Come to Grief.
Anderson, Michael. A review of Comeback. The New York Times Book Review (22 December 1991): 14.
Lauds Francis's Comeback as an enjoyable ride.
Binyon, T. J. "Criminal proceedings." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4374 (30 January 1987): 108.
Criticizes Francis's Bolt for lacking the qualities commonly associated with Francis novels, including "tension, excitement, surprise, atmosphere and characterization."
―――――――. "Crime file." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4421 (25-31 December 1987): 1428.
Complains that there is too much psychology and not enough action in Francis's Hot Money.
―――――――. "Criminal Proceedings." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4471 (9 December 1988): 1376.
Criticizes Francis's The Edge for being "thinly plotted" and "carelessly written."
Campbell, Don. "Track, Casino, Newsroom, Squad Car." The Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 January 1988): 6.
Praises Francis's Hot Money for being a good mystery and a good read.
Champlin, Charles. A review of Longshot. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 November 1990): 15.
Calls Longshot one of Francis's best novels in his prolific career.
―――――――. A review of Driving Force. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 October 1992): 13.
Lauds Francis for keeping his formula fresh in his Driving Force.
―――――――. "Criminal Pursuits." The Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 September 1994): 18.
Praises Francis's research of the movie industry in Wild Horses.
Cromie, Alice. "'Poison' You Can't Put Down." Chicago Tribune Books (10 May 1987): 6.
States that Francis's Bolt is a winner.
Dretzka, Gary. "Nero Wolfe Leaves His Lair, and Dick Francis Rides Again." Chicago Tribune Books (4 October 1992): 6-7.
Praises Francis's Driving Force as a sure best-seller.
―――――――. "Is Scudder Getting Weird on Us?" Chicago Tribune Books (2 October 1994): 9.
Reviews several mystery novels including Francis's Wild Horses.
French, Edward. A review of Driving Force. Books 6, No. 5 (September/October 1992): 27.
Praises Francis for his natural storytelling ability and asserts that Driving Force is a satisfying read.
Harshaw, Tobin. "Books in Brief." The New York Times Book Review (8 October 1995): 26.
Praises Sid Halley, the hero of Francis's Come to Grief, but asserts that Francis has been better.
Hubin, Allen J. A review of Straight. The Armchair Detective 24, No. 1 (Winter 1991): 29.
Praises the plot and characters of Francis's Straight.
Kaufman, Gerald "Bring in the Heavy Guns." The Listener 120, No. 3093 (15 December 1988): 34.
Praises the prose and plot of Francis's The Edge.
A review of Wild Horses. Kirkus Reviews LXII, No. 14 (15 July 1994): 950.
Lauds the expertise Francis exhibits about directing in Wild Horses, but complains that "the mystery is muddled and the villains muffled."
Moore, Kevin. "From Nero Wolfe's Orchids to a 'Prime Slime' Shamus." Chicago Tribune Books (5 November 1989): 6.
Asserts that Francis has maintained his high standards with his novel Straight.
―――――――. "A Cajun Beat and Brit Cool Set the Mood." Chicago Tribune Books (14 October 1990): 6.
Lauds Francis's Longshot despite the author's occasional overwriting.
―――――――. "Keeping a Watch on Crime with Francis and Others." Chicago Tribune (6 October 1991): 6.
States that Francis's Comeback demonstrates the writing skills that Francis has developed throughout his career.
A review of Bolt. The New Yorker LXIII, No. 8 (13 April 1987): 106.
Asserts that with Bolt Francis is back to the quality of his earlier writing.
Rosser, Claire. A review of Comeback. Kliatt 27, No. 3 (May 1993): 6.
Calls Francis's Comeback one of Francis's best.
Ryan, Desmond. "In Short." The New York Times Book Review (1 May 1988): 22.
States that although the puzzle of Francis's Hot Money is not among his best, Francis displays his gifts for narrative and economical prose.
Shibuk, Charles. A review of Bolt. The Armchair Detective 22, No. 1 (Winter 1989): 106.
Asserts that while Francis's Bolt is a good novel, it does not attain the achievement of his previous work Break In.
―――――――. A review of Straight. The Armchair Detective 24, No. 4 (Fall 1991): 507.
Calls Francis's Straight "so spellbinding that it is almost impossible to put down."
Spitzer, Jane Stewart. "Popular Novels." Christian Science Monitor (6 March 1987): B4.
Asserts that Francis's Bolt is far from being his best novel.
―――――――. "Suspense Stories." The Christian Science Monitor (23 March 1988): 20.
Asserts that the resolution of Francis's Hot Money does not provide the satisfaction usually associated with the end of a Francis novel.
Stuewe, Paul. "Of Some Import." Quill & Quire 55, No. 12 (December 1989): 29.
Points out the problems with Francis's Straight including the author's failed attempt to integrate the gem business into the story line.
A review of Bolt. Time 129, No. 17 (27 April 1987): 83.
States that with Francis's Bolt, he "again demonstrates that he is both a win and a nice read."
Watkins, Mel. "In Short." The New York Times Book Review (29 March 1987): 22.
Asserts that Francis's Bolt delivers on all of the elements expected from a Francis novel.
Waugh, Harriet. "O, Let Them Not Be Mad!" The Spectator 259, No. 8306 (26 September 1987): 34-5.
States that Francis's Hot Money is enough to keep a not very discerning detective reader happy.
―――――――. "Thrills on a Wet Afternoon." The Spectator 261, No. 8359 (24 September 1988): 40-1.
Asserts that The Edge suffers from an unnecessary subplot and is not one of Francis's best.
―――――――. "Not Altering When it Alteration Finds." The Spectator 266, No. 8467 (20 October 1990): 33-4.
Asserts that Francis's Longshot "is an exceptionally well-plotted novel with convincing characters … and is also truly exciting."
―――――――. "Murder Most Enjoyable." The Spectator 267, No. 8526 (7 December 1991): 34.
Complains that Francis's Comeback starts slow and is not as good as his Longshot, but that by the end, the novel becomes thoroughly engrossing.
―――――――. "English Country Murders." The Spectator 275, No. 8721 (2 September 1995): 32.
Calls Francis's Come to Grief an example of "sado-masochistic, action-packed detection."
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