Saturday, October 31, 2015

Birthday: Dick Francis chronicled a bloody world beneath the genteel talk of bloodlines at the track


Richard Stanley Francis, CBE, FRSL (1920-2010)
Jockey, author

Son of a jockey and stable manager, Dick Francis left school at 15 to become a jockey himself. He served in Britain’s RAF during World War II, first as a mechanic, then as a fighter pilot in Africa. Returning to the turf after the war, he had a successful decade-long, if injury-prone, career, with 345 wins in hunt racing. He was champion jockey for 1953-54, and from 1953 to 1957 was jockey for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. After her horse collapsed in the 1956 Grand National- injuring him again- she asked him to retire.

Looking about for something to do, Francis wrote a book on racing, The Sport of Queens. His publisher, thinking Francis a name with nothing behind it, offered him a ghostwriter. Francis rejected the offer, the book was a bestseller, and Francis leveraged his success into a sixteen-year career as racing correspondent for the Sunday Express newspaper.

Having caught the writer’s bug, Francis embarked on a career as a murder mystery novelist. Horse racing was always the center of his universe, and his heroes people who worked in it, or related fields. His inclusiveness was considerable: besides grooms, jockeys, breeders, and owners, his narrators included a wine dealer, a private investigator, an artist, , a glassblower, a weatherman, an architect, an antique dealer and a pilot. His was an all-male world, and his heroes were always men who turned out a little smarter, braver and luckier than the bad guys they bested.

Francis worked with Trollope-like regularity. In autumn he did promotion work for his just-published novel and research for his next; in January he started writing. He gave his publisher the manuscript in May, took the summer off, and started the cycle anew in the fall. He produced a book a year for 38 years; his last four he wrote with his son, Felix, who has carried on the brand with five novels bearing his father’s name in the titles. Writing the books was a family enterprise; Francis’ wife, Mary, was a close collaborator in both researching and editing his books.

A Dick Francis novel had an Agatha Christie-like predictability (if more blood and violence); the good ended well and the bad, badly. Readers adored them, and bought over sixty million copies. In the 1980s, Francis retired to Florida, then to the Caymans in 1992. Despite declining health, he published his final book, under his name alone, at 85. After publishing four more with his son, Francis died at 89, in 2010.

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