Sunday 14 February 2010

Dick Francis R.I.P.

I was very sorry to learn today of the death of Dick Francis. Among his many accomplishments was the ability to make novels with a horse racing background appealing to people who, like me, had no interest whatsoever in that particular sport. He managed it with a combination of pacy, no-nonsense writing and careful attention to the detail of his backgrounds. There was always an authentic tang about a Dick Francis novel, and this attracted the approval of reviewers and commentators on crime fiction, as well as the devotion of the countless readers who turned his books into best-sellers. Because, as a jockey, he knew what it was to experience pain, when his heroes got hurt, they felt it. But in the end they triumphed nonetheless.

After previously sampling one or two of his early novels in a casual way, I finally became hooked on Dick Francis in the1980s. Titles such as Banker (a special favourite of mine), Reflex, Proof, Twice Shy and Hot Money were first class examples of the action thriller. His stories often benefited from providing an interesting insight into a world other than horse racing (the title of Banker speaks for itself; Reflex was about photography, and so on.) Of his later books, I particularly enjoyed Come to Grief, which marked the return of his occasional protagonist Sid Halley, and which was rather darker in tone than the typical Francis novel.

His wife Mary, who died some years ago, evidently contributed to the books’ merits; in recent years his son Felix has been acknowledged as a co-author. The Francis brand was impressive; many other sportsmen and women have written thrillers, trying to emulate his success. But none of them, I think it’s safe to say, have quite equalled his achievements.

Quite apart from his novels, Dick Francis also wrote a number of twisty short stories, and when I was putting together an anthology to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Crime Writers’ Association, Mysterious Pleasures, he was generous enough to contribute to the book. His story, ‘The Gift’, is a very good one.

The sustained excellence of his writing career was marked by various honours, notably the CWA Diamond Dagger. There was a lack of pretension about Francis’s writing that, I gather from those who knew him well, was matched by a very likeable personality. Some time ago, I had the chance to meet him in person at long last, but reluctantly had to forego it because of other commitments. I did entertain the hope that, as a member of the Detection Club, one day I might have the chance to chat with him over dinner. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, but like so many others, I appreciated his ability to intrigue and entertain and mourn his passing.


Ann Elle Altman said...

My sister has read and owns every one of his books and always raves about him. He's one I've not really gotten into...yet.


Bernadette said...

What said news though, I suppose, not entirely unexpected. Dick Francis was one of the few mystery authors that the librarian at our local library thought appropriate so I was introduced to him at an early age and have always had an affection for his books. I'm pretty sure I have read every one of them, some many times over. When I was backpacking around the globe Dick Francis novels could always be found in English in the oddest of places and it was always quite comforting to be able to pick up one of his books in some far flung part of the world.

My personal favourites are Whip Hand (also featuring Sid Halley), Longshot (about a bloke who writes travel survival guides) and Straight (about a jockey who inherits his brother's jewllery business).

Anonymous said...

Martin - Thank you for this very fine tribute to Dick Francis. He will be sorely missed.

Mary or Eric said...

I can only echo what you said -- it amazes me how much I enjoyed even the novels set in the world of horse racing when my only interest in horses is staying as far away from them as possible so I don't get stepped on or something! However it has been a long time since I was on my Dick Francis kick (maybe a bad word choice) so I am reminded it might be time to pick up one of his books again.

Keanan Brand said...

I am surprised and saddened to read about his passing. I have long been a fan of his work, re-reading many of his novels several times.

Back when I read To the Hilt, one of my favorites, my brother and his wife tried to find a copy of it or anything else by Francis, so I would stop checking them out from the library. Knowing I preferred hardcovers, they were quite apologetic when all they could find were paperbacks.

"Who cares?" I replied. "I'll read a Francis novel in whatever form it happens to be available."

Fiona said...

I've been a great fan for many years and appreciate your tribute, Martin. You've named many of my favourites although I have to add The Edge (trans-Canada railway), Driving Force (horse transport business), Decider (architecture) ... how can I pick just one? I described his early books to a friend as being one page of sex, one page of violence and 300(?) pages of great story; his response was that he'd heard an interview in which DF said his first book had been returned by a publisher because it needed spicing up and that's exactly what he added - the revised MS was accepted and thus was his career launched. Later, his sales didn't seem to suffer from any lack of spice!

Before Mary died I felt for some years that the annual publications alternated between 'brilliant as usual' and 'a bit disappointing'. When it was revealed that Mary had had a hand in the writing I wondered if my analysis was in fact a true reflection of her input.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. I think the wide range of favourite titles show what a consistent and reliable writer he was.

Mike Ripley said...

I count myself fortunate in that I was able to meet Dick Francis on many occasions over the last 20 years, usually at the most excellent launch parties given when he had a new book out.(I once told him one of my favourites was "Bonecrack" to which he replied he had always preferred "Dead Cert".)
He was one of the few people about whom it could be said he was both a gentle man and a Gentleman.