Dick Francis, Still Kicking

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.



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12 Responses to Dick Francis, Still Kicking

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Thank you for reminding me! I loved Francis’ books, too. As I remember, vividly, the pace was grab-you-by-the-throat-on-page-one-and-don’t-let-go.

    I also always thought it was clever the way the protagonist was always the same character but not the same person, which meant the personal details and circumstances could change from book to book.

  2. Brian, Ashland, OR says:

    I discovered Dick Francis’ novels when recovering from surgery a few years back. It was a pleasure to read his books while laid up. I’ve read all but 4 or 5 of his books and find them interesting in how he deals with his protagonists and it’s often without the help of the police. He finds interesting ways of “getting even”, often without violence; just doing what’s right.

    I’d never had any awareness of “jump jockeys” and steeplechase horse racing, so Francis’ books have given me an “insider’s look” at the world of high-stakes racing. And I also enjoy how much you can learn about his main characters’ professions, whether they be horse caravan owners, photographer, inventor, artist, etc. Francis knows (knew) how to pull you into the story by creating really interesting plots and characters. I miss his work.

    • Gerry Boyle says:

      I’m told the new Felix Francis (Dick’s son) is top notch. And that’s from a friend who is a tough critic.

      • Brian, Ashland, OR says:

        Thanks, Gerry. That’s good to know that Felix seems to picked up where his father left off. But knowing that Felix was so involved in assisting and eventually co-writing w/ Dick, I’m not surprised. I still have a few of Dick’s novels I haven’t read yet, so I’ll continue with them before I look for Francis’ work.

  3. Brenda says:

    I love Dick Francis too! I was delighted to find that GAMBLE by Felix Francis was to me reminiscent of a Dick Francis novel.

    I reread HOT MONEY not that long ago. Still a great novel. Even though a gg-uncle had some connection to the filly that won the 1915 Kentucky Derby, before Dick Francis I had no interest really in horses or horse racing, only ever saw a horse race when my dad would call me to see the last bit of the Kentucky Derby on t.v.

    • Gerry Boyle says:

      Love the horse racing world, even though only horses I rode were rented by the hour and named Pokey. The books are a window to a different world.

      • Brian, Ashland, OR says:

        I’m not attracted to horses, either. My only time on a horse was when I was an early elementary school-aged tike and I rode a horse at the Calif. State Fair that was chained to a harness contraption and we rode around in a circle for a few minutes. That was enough for me.
        But getting to learn about the life of a jump jockey through Dick’s novels has been fascinating. I can see how the Grand National or Derby races (or “darby” as they pronounce it in England) are so engaging to the fans and those in the racing industry.

  4. John Clark says:

    Count me in as a Dick Francis fan. I read pretty much all of them in the 1970s and 1980s. I liked being introduced to a world I was totally unfamiliar with, educated while being entertained and I liked that they weren’t quite a ‘series’, but had a familiar and comfortable feel to them.

  5. C J says:

    I read my first Dick Francis in my mom’s Reader’s Digest books – can it be 40 years ago? Oh dear. Then I went to the library and checked out every one of his they had. After that I bought them in paperbacks and when I had money, bought the hardbacks. Didn’t love every one but I have them all on my shelves.
    Not quite 10 years ago I became a horse owner (I have one horse named Pokey, btw). It’s a heck of a lot harder to read the violence perpetrated on the poor horses now that I know them. Isn’t it funny that we can read murder mysteries and rarely blink at the gruesome things done to humans, but flinch at the animals? Anyway Francis brings the criminals to justice for the crimes done to the horse as well as human, and I love reading him still.

  6. Rhonda Lane says:

    Was delighted to see the re-visit to Dick Francis. If anyone could give us a peek into the world of jump racing, he’s the guy. Shocking to admit, I haven’t read them all. I’ve doled them out to myself over the years. I’m glad, really, because when I read them now, I have a better idea of the racing culture in the UK. Ever since I’ve been a horse blogger, the world of horses has become a smaller place. I routinely receive news of what’s going on at Cheltenham and Ascot and can look up each racecourse’s website for photos. BTW, some US tracks offer jump racing,such as Saratoga which offers some races over hurdles on Thursdays during its annual race meet.

  7. Sasscer Hill says:

    I’ve been a true lover of Dick Francis novels since I read “Dead Cert”soon after it was published in 1962. No one had heard of Francis and I remember thinking “Wow. Does this guy have more books?” In 1965 I found “For Kicks” and loved it. Soon after, Francis was everywhere and had become an international bestseller. Those two books, however, remain my favorites.

    The one thing I excelled at in school was writing. That ability and my great love for Francis, and Walter Farley of the “Black Stallion” books led me to attempt a novel. My most cherished possession is a letter from Francis after he took the time to read the first five chapters of an early-version of my first novel, “Full Mortality.” He, like his wonderful characters, was a thoroughly decent and kind person, telling me that if “I continued on in the same manner,” he believed I would get published. I can still feel how my hands shook as I read his letter.

    I finished that novel in 2008. The story about a young jockey was published in 2010 and was subsequently nominated for both Agatha and Macavity best-first-novel awards. I was, however, horrified when my publisher included a cover banner declaring it to be “America’s answer to Dick Francis.” I wanted to hide in a closet. How dare he say this? Amazingly, it didn’t come back to bite me and the critical reviews of the series have been quite favorable. A free read of the first chapter is available if the spirit moves you.

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