If you’ve never read anything by Dick Francis, I envy you. I wish I’d never read anything of his, either — just so I could start at the beginning and read all 40-plus novels for the first time.
As it is, I read them over and over — some five or six times. They never fail to delight, even when I know them practically by heart. That’s a rare quality in a book, yet Francis manages to do it consistently.
In case you’ve never heard of Francis, he was a champion British steeplechase jockey back in the 1950s and 60s. He actually rode Queen Elizabeth’s horses, among others.
After retiring young, like practically all steeplechase jockeys — piloting one-ton quadrupeds over hurdles at 30 mph apparently being hard on the body —he took up, of all things, mystery writing — and became one of the greatest mystery writers of all time. (In my opinion, THE greatest.)
All of Francis’s novels are set, somehow, in the horse racing world. His early protagonists were jockeys and trainers, but he soon branched out to race announcers, track architects, sports photographers, even accountants for racehorse-owning clients.
In fact, one of the most fascinating things about reading Francis is his in-depth research into a particular occupation — say, investment banking, for instance. Or selling antiques. Or glass-blowing. Or manufacturing toys. Or wine merchant. And on it goes.
Whatever he does for a living, each Francis protagonist is basically just a regular guy minding his own business when he gets caught up in some thorny situation not of his making and has to think his way out of it. There’s always a lot of danger involved and thus a great deal of action.
It’s all very British, with plenty of stiff upper lips. Minor setbacks, like being shot or beaten or hung from a harness hook, are generally described as “boring.”
My favorite thing about reading Francis, though, is that all his protagonists, though not the same character, are essentially the same guy (no doubt, a reflection of Francis himself). And I really enjoy spending time with that guy.
Sadly, Dick Francis passed away in 2010. The literary mantle, however, was passed to his son, Felix, who has become an accomplished mystery writer in his own right.
At the height of his writing career, Dick was often assisted by his wife Mary, who did much of the extensive research for his characters. When Mary died in 2000, Felix took over that job. Eventually, he became his dad’s co-author before inheriting and extending the franchise.
The Felix Francis books are not, in my opinion, quite as good — but they’re still pretty good. Like Dick’s, they are mostly set in the horse racing world, and like Dick’s, they all involve essentially the same protagonist. He’s not the same person as Dick’s protagonist, but he’s still very similar.
In fact, he could almost be his son.