Hey all. Gerry Boyle here. Taking a bit of a trip down memory lane but, hey, it’s winter in Maine. That means it’s 10-below and I’m sitting by the fire . And reading Dick Francis.
This was prompted by a question from a reader at an event a few weeks back: “When did you first fall in love with mysteries?” This was followed by my story about coming home from college with my highbrow literary ideas and finding a paperback my dad was reading. English fella named Dick Francis. Said in the jacket copy he used to be the Queen’s jockey. Well, he surely wouldn’t be James Joyce but I could slum it a bit. I was on break after all. I started reading. Sometime early that morning I finished the book. One sitting. Put it down with the breathless, jarred-back-to-reality feeling. Wow. Virginia Woolf had never done that.
I don’t recall the exact book. Bonecrack, maybe? This would have been in the mid-70s and Francis was cranking them out. I went to the shelf and dug out some more. I read them all in a week, one after another, diving into the world of jump jockeys and Mini-Coopers and crooked racehorse owners.
It was addictive. Exhilarating. Oddly unnerving.
I was hooked.
Years passed and I kept up with Dick Francis. Eventually I started writing mystery novels and by pure coincidence I ended up being represented by the literary agent who represented Francis in the first part of his career, before she went on her own. I told her about my baptism by steeplechase. She shared some anecdotes about Dick. And the rest is …
… me going to the shelf last week and taking down an old Dick Francis novel. I was curious: would the book have the same effect? Would it seem dated and old-fashioned? Would I read a few pages and put it down for something more current?
The book was Slayride. A Harper Novel of Suspense. 1973. A slim book. Unflashy cover, by today’s in-your-face standards. Uncut pages, in the style of the day. A first page that starts with the story well underway.
An investigator sent by the Jockey Club to find an English jockey who is said to have bolted with the day’s take at a racecourse in Norway. Attempted murder by speedboat. Death by drowning. A breathless widow who has a thing for the narrator. A bunch of potential suspects. Good guys who turn bad in the flip of a page.
I read it in two sittings, but only because I had to get up to get more wood for the fire.
So what the heck was it about the book? Why was I hooked by the second page? Why did I ride it right to the end? Why did I forget about what was going on around me? Why, after coming in from the woodshed, was I so eager to get back to my chair and the story?
I’ll let you all help with the answers to those questions. But my attempt: Francis, following the old playwright’s adage, jumps in late and gets out early. The book hits the ground running.
The narrator is vulnerable but strong, complex but not so much that it takes you 50 pages to figure out what makes him tick. The dialogue isn’t flashy but it’s direct and leaves nothing to question. The villain’s motive is simple: greed. The characters are quickly and accurately drawn. There’s a simple authenticity to them. They serve their purpose and nothing more.
So I took some lessons away from my three hours with the jump jockeys. And I’m curious. Who do you revisit? Do their books hold up? And why?
I’d write more but I’m in the middle of a good book. Enquiry by Dick Francis. 1969. This jockey has been suspended for throwing a race. He knows he was set up and by the end of the second chapter he’s been nearly murdered. Vowed to get revenge. I’ll let you know how it turns out. In about two hours.