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.