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Published: Wednesday, 2/17/2010

Dick Francis: A thoroughbred among thriller writers

Dick Francis, whose notable but blighted career as a champion steeplechase jockey for the British royal family was eclipsed by a second, more brilliant career as a popular thriller writer, died on Sunday in the Cayman Islands, where he had a home. He was 89.

The author of more than 40 novels, most of them set in the world of thoroughbred horse racing, Francis made it a point of honor to satisfy fans with one book a year for most of his career. His works have been translated into languages around the world.

Although his first novel, Dead Cert in 1962, was made into a feature film, television adaptations of his stories have been more successful, including a British series broadcast here in 1980 as part of the public television series Mystery! That series doubled sales of his books in the United States.

One of the most honored of genre authors, Francis was named to the Order of the British Empire and later made a commander. He won the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America three times and was made a grand master, the group's highest honor, in 1996. He also received the Diamond Dagger award, the highest honor of the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain, in 1990.

“I never really decided to be a writer,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, “I just sort of drifted into it.” Before he turned to writing, Francis was already a celebrity in British sporting circles. Named champion jockey of the 1953-54 racing season by the British National Hunt after winning more than 350 races, he was retained as jockey to the queen mother for four seasons and raced eight times in the Grand National Steeplechase.

When Devon Loch, the horse he was racing for the queen mother in the 1956 Grand National, collapsed in a spectacular mishap just before he would have won, Francis feared, as he put it in his autobiography, that he would be remembered as “the man who didn't win the National.” This setback, along with the accumulated miseries of injuries, forced him into early retirement at the age of 36.

But with the same pluck characteristic of the jockeys, trainers, and other horsemen who serve as the heroes of his novels, he took a job writing sports articles for the Sunday Express of London and served as that newspaper's racing correspondent for 16 years.

A chance encounter with a literary agent led to his writing The Sport of Queens, published the year after he retired. Emboldened by its success (and further motivated by his paltry wages as a journalist), he began writing Dead Cert.

Drawing on his experiences as a jockey and his intimate knowledge of the racetrack crowd — from aristocratic owners to Cockney stable boys — the novel contained all the elements that readers would come to relish from a Dick Francis thriller. There was the pounding excitement of a race, the aura of the gentry at play, the sweaty smells from the stables out back, an appreciation for the regal beauty and unique personality of a thoroughbred — and enough sadistic violence to man and beast to satisfy the bloodthirsty.

“Writing a novel proved to be the hardest, most self-analyzing task I had ever attempted,” Francis said, “far worse than an autobiography.” He went about his unaccustomed chore cautiously and methodically, as he might have approached a skittish horse. Working in pencil in an exercise book, he would labor over one sentence until he was satisfied that he could do no better, then move on to the next sentence.

“My ‘first draft' is IT,” Francis revealed in his autobiography, noting that he never rewrote. “I've tried once or twice, but I haven't the mental stamina and I feel all the time that although what I'm attempting may be different, it won't be better and may very well be worse, because my heart isn't in it.”

Nerve appeared two years after Dead Cert. The former jockey had hung up his boots for good, and had become a professional author.

After the death in 2000 of Mary Francis, his wife of 53 years and a close collaborator on his books, Francis expressed doubts that he would ever write another novel. “She was the moving force behind my writing,” he said. “I don't think I shall write again other than letters now. So much of my work was her.”

Indeed, he didn't write another novel until Under Orders in 2006. That novel brought back Sid Halley, the retired steeplechase jockey who was his champion sleuth.

A year later, Francis teamed up with his son, Felix Francis, to write Dead Heat. Father and son would go on to write two more novels together, Silks and Even Money. Felix Francis survives him along with another son, Merrick, five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Francis was a formulaic writer, even if the formula was foolproof. He drew the reader into the intimate and remarkably sensual experience of the world of racing. His writing never seemed better than when his jockey-heroes climbed on their mounts and gave themselves up to what he called “the old song in the blood.”

This self-contained world was, of course, a reflection of a broader universe in which themes of winning and losing and courage and integrity have more sweeping meaning. As the critic John Leonard wrote, “Not to read Dick Francis because you don't like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don't like God.”

After leading the reader into this subculture, Francis would then introduce an element of menace. A jockey is kidnapped (Risk). A jockey commits suicide (Nerve). A jockey is killed (Slay-Ride). Horses are stolen (Blood Sport). Horses are mutilated (Come to Grief). Horses are killed (Bolt). Horrific things also happen to owners, trainers, breeders, and stable hands. Into this disordered universe rides the hero, usually a jockey or a former jockey.

Typically, the Dick Francis hero is a modest, decent fellow, a model of British valor and integrity, who restores order by asserting his superior moral values — and by going mano a mano with a ruthless villain who subjects him to unspeakable torture.

Those livid passages are as much a hallmark of Francis' thrillers as his more celebrated horse races. Although he once said that the extreme violence in his books was a reflection of “life in general,” it was more likely a sense-memory of his own painful injuries. His collarbone was broken 12 times, his nose five times, his skull once, his wrist once, and his ribs too many times to notice. He rode 12 races (winning two) with a broken arm.

Dick Francis was born on Oct. 31, 1920, in Lawrenny, south Wales. As the son of a professional steeplechase rider and stable manager, he was introduced to horse racing early. Although he flew with the Royal Air Force during World War II, piloting fighter and bomber aircraft, the major flight research on Flying Finish and Rat Race was done by his wife.

His final novel, Crossfire, is scheduled to be published later this year.

A modest and reserved man, Francis took quiet pleasure in his success as an author. He once confessed to a moment of vanity when his publisher advertised a novel on the front of London buses. “I stood in Oxford Street watching them go by with an absolutely fatuous smile,” he said.

Yet, in looking back at the decade that he rode horses for a living, he would call those years “the special ones. The first growth; the true vintage. The best years of my life.”


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