Damn. This one hurt.
As is often the case when I'm doing brain-dead chores, I was listening to a book while wrangling a load of laundry Sunday afternoon. In this case a "Books on Tape" production of Dead Heat, one of the best of Dick Francis's recent works. I'd read and enjoyed the 2007 novel before, but Martin Jarvis's agile reading of it adds a dimension.
It was with great sadness that after putting the CDs aside, laundry done, I went on-line and learned that Francis had died on Saturday at his home in the Cayman Islands. One can hardly be surprised when someone 89 goes on. But it's still very bad news and a huge loss to the untold number of Dick Francis fans on both sides of the Atlantic, me included, that he will no longer be writing the taut crime thrillers we've come to enjoy over the decades. Happily, Francis's publishers, G.P. Putnam's Sons, have one more completed novel, Crossfire, a publication date for which has not been announced.
Those who know the name but haven't had the pleasure may think of Francis as "the horse writer." Born in Wales to a horse trainer, Francis said he can't remember when he didn't ride, but admits in his autobiography that his first ride at about age five was on a donkey.
Before turning to fiction writing in his forties, Francis had flown RAF bombers in combat in WWII and then become a championship steeple-chase jockey, often riding the Queen Mum's horses and coming within a whisker of winning the Grand National in 1956. His novels aren't horse-stories anymore than Hamlet is a ghost-story. But all of his 42 crime novels have something to do with the world of British horse racing, a world Francis knew intimately, and could portray deftly, warts and all.
The attraction to Francis for conservative TAS readers -- other than the pleasure of intelligently written stories in lean, clear, insistent prose -- is his conservative protagonists. Francis doesn't use the word, his novels are apolitical with politicians getting hardly a mention at all. But we're probably justified in describing his heroes thus.
Francis does not have a series character. His heroes have different names and are involved in a wide range of occupations. But they're all young, mostly in their thirties, physically and mentally tough, courageous but not foolhardy, intelligent, resourceful, self-disciplined, self-reliant, civil, and thoroughly decent. They exemplify the manly virtues without swaggering about it. Not a metro-sexual in the bunch. Not a braggadocio either. No sense of entitlement.
Francis's bad guys subject his heroes to all manner of physical and mental torment, which the good guys bear with stoicism and overcome, along with the bad guys, by their wits and courage. It's good versus evil in a Francis story, and it doesn't take a philosophy major or a bioethicist to figure out which is which. Francis's stories ring with intelligence and strength. They're full of affirmation of life without anyone having to say, "Would you like to talk about it?"
It's no surprise that Francis's heroes can and do take physical punishment. They're like their creator in this regard. In his racing days Francis says he had his skull fractured once, one or the other collar bones broken six times (he was married with his collar bone in a brace), and his nose broken five times. As for broken ribs, he said he quit counting after a while. But like his heroes, Francis never complained about the constant injuries that are the jockey's lot. He said that compared to Germans shooting at him while he attempted to drop bombs on them, racing was a piece of cake. A pretty tough cake, but that's how he saw it.
After one fall too many Francis retired from racing in 1957 to become a racing writer for the Sunday Express. It was just a step, though a large one, from racing journalist to writing novels based on the racing world. His first novel, Dead Cert, hit bookstores in 1962. Since then his books have sold more than six million copies and have been translated into 20 languages.
Francis's novels are found in the mystery section of bookstores. But his deft handling of theme, character, and place make his work more than genre fare. His work has the I've-just-got-to-turn-the-page-to-see-what-happens insistence of the good thriller, along with the depth of the well-done mainstream novel.
Thanks to thorough research done, first by Francis's wife Mary who died in 2000, later by number two son Felix, readers get a look at various worlds, including -- the law in Silks, the diplomatic corps and veterinary medicine in Comeback, movie-making in Wild Horses, cooking and the gourmet restaurant business in Dead Heat, glassblowing in Shattered, flying in Flying Finish, photography in Reflex, et al.
Over the last three novels, Felix's contribution has been sufficient to lift him to the level of co-author, though the style and stories of the last three are so consistent with the body of Francis's work that it's clear that Dick has been at the wheel throughout. And the throughout has been consistently good, with Francis winning every prize for mystery fiction there is to win to go along with the impressive book sales.
Francis was not one of those old guys stuck in a time warp. He kept up. His later novels show the contemporary, culturally diminished Britain without whining about it. But his stories treat universal themes such that 1962's Dead Cert and the other novels in his impressive back-list are as readable today as when they first appeared. I recommend them to TAS readers.
The world has lost a champion on the racetrack, in the air in defense of freedom, and on the page in defense of intelligence, honesty, and decency. RIP Dick Francis. Your race is run, and you done good.
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