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Francis, Dick

FRANCIS, Dick

Nationality: British. Born: Richard Stanley Francis in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, 31 October 1920. Education: Maidenhead County Boys' School, Berkshire. Military Service: Served as a Flying Officer in the Royal Air Force, 1940-45. Family: Married Mary Margaret Brenchley in 1947; two sons. Career: Amateur National Hunt (steeplechase) jockey, 1946-48; professional, 1948-57: National Hunt champion, 1953-54. Racing correspondent Sunday Express, London, 1957-73. Chairman, Crime Writers Association, 1973-74. Awards: Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger award, 1965, Gold Dagger award, 1980, Diamond Dagger award, 1989; Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, 1969, 1981, 1996; Nibbies award, 1998; Agatha Lifetime Achievement award, 2000. L.H.D.: Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, 1991. O.B.E.(Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1984. Agent: John Johnson, 45-47 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0HT, England. Address: P.O. Box 30866 S.M.B., Grand Cayman, British West Indies.

Publications

Novels

Dead Cert. London, Joseph, and New York, Holt Rinehart, 1962.

Nerve. London, Joseph, and New York, Harper, 1964.

For Kicks. London, Joseph, and New York, Harper, 1965.

Odds Against. London, Joseph, 1965; New York, Harper, 1966.

Flying Finish. London, Joseph, 1966; New York, Harper, 1967.

Blood Sport. London, Joseph, 1967; New York, Harper, 1968.

Forfeit. London, Joseph, and New York, Harper, 1969.

Enquiry. London, Joseph, 1970; New York, Harper, 1971.

Rat Race. London, Joseph, 1970; New York, Harper, 1971.

Bonecrack. London, Joseph, 1971; New York, Harper, 1972.

Smokescreen. London, Joseph, and New York, Harper, 1972.

Slay-Ride. London, Joseph, and New York, Harper, 1973.

Knock-Down. London, Joseph, 1974; New York, Harper, 1975.

High Stakes. London, Joseph, 1975; New York, Harper, 1976.

In the Frame. London, Joseph, 1976; New York, Harper, 1978.

Trial Run. London, Joseph, 1978; New York, Harper, 1979.

Whip Hand. London, Joseph, 1979; New York, Harper, 1980.

Reflex. London, Joseph, 1980; New York, Putnam, 1981.

Twice Shy. London, Joseph, 1981; New York, Putnam, 1982.

Banker. London, Joseph, 1982; New York, Putnam, 1983.

The Danger. London, Joseph, 1983; New York, Putnam, 1984.

Proof. London, Joseph, 1984; New York, Putnam, 1985.

Break In. London, Joseph, and New York, Putnam, 1986.

Bolt. London, Joseph, 1986; New York, Putnam, 1987.

Hot Money. London, Joseph, 1987; New York, Putnam, 1988.

The Edge. London, Joseph, 1988; New York, Putnam, 1989.

Straight. London, Joseph, and New York, Putnam, 1989.

Longshot. London, Joseph and New York, Putnam, 1990.

Comeback. London, Joseph, and New York, Putnam, 1991.

Driving Force. London, Joseph, and New York, Putnam, 1992.

Decider. London, Joseph, and New York, Putnam, 1993.

Wild Horses. London, Joseph, and New York, Putnam, 1994.

Risk. Thorndike, Maine, G.K. Hall, 1994.

Come to Grief. London, Joseph, and New York, Putnam, 1995.

To the Hilt. New York, Putnam, 1996.

10 Lb. Penalty. New York, Putnam, 1997.

Second Wind. New York, Putnam, 1999.

Short Stories

Field of Thirteen. New York, Putnam, 1998.

Plays

Screenplays:

Dead Cert, 1974.

Other

The Sport of Queens: The Autobiography of Dick Francis. London, Joseph, 1957; revised edition, 1968, 1974, 1982, 1988; New York, Harper, 1969.

Lester: The Official Biography. London, Joseph, 1986; as A Jockey's Life: The Biography of Lester Piggott, New York, Putnam, 1986.

Editor, with John Welcome, Best Racing and Chasing Stories 1-2. London, Faber, 2 vols., 1966-69.

Editor, with John Welcome, The Racing Man's Bedside Book. London, Faber, 1969.

*

Critical Studies:

Dick Francis by Melvyn Barnes, New York, Ungar, 1986; Dick Francis by J. Madison Davis, Boston, Twayne, 1989; Dick Francis: Steeplechase Jockey by Bryony Fuller, London, Joseph, 1994.

* * *

" Dying slowly of bone cancer the old man, shrivelled now, sat as ever in his great armchair, tears of lonely pain sliding down crepuscular cheeks." Hardly the opening words one expects in a top-selling thriller. Yet they are what Dick Francis chose to write at the start of his 33rd novel, Wild Horses, and they tell us at once that the book will be more than a simple thrilleras, though in a less immediately obvious way, were each of its 32 predecessors.

There is perhaps a reason for this. Dick Francis did not come to fiction until he was approaching 40 and had already had a highly successful career in horse racing, ending as Champion jockey. Then, too, his life had not been without profound trouble. So it should be no surprise that his books, though designed first to entertain, each ask, with more pointedness or less, about one aspect of existence or another, the question, "How should we live?"

His method is to write a first version and then to read it aloud on to tape. I suspect that it is this process that accounts for the first of his virtues, the extreme easiness of his style. But easy reading generally comes from hard work first, and Francis has said that producing a novel is "just as tiring" as race riding. Besides the style, there are solid plots underneath the whole; concluding events have reasonable and likely causes. There is the continuing pull of the story, so that you are all the time wanting to know what will happen next. You get told what you want to know, too, and not something just a little bit different, a mistake less skilled authors often make. And at the same time you are made to want to know some new thing.

Then there is the language. Francis chooses straightforward words and never wastes them. (Though in his later books he uses, where needed, something more resonant, such as the "crepuscular" in the passage quoted earlier.) This virtue comes perhaps from his sense of timing, a gift he brought with him from racing to writing. The art of judging at just what moment to put a new fact into the reader's head, whether the fact is as important as the discovery of a body (most adroitly done in Slay-Ride ) or just some necessary detail, is one that Francis shares with the masters of his craft.

But more important than the pacing, or plot, or even skillful story-telling, are the people writers invent for their stories. It is through people that the storyteller affects an audience. The people in Francis's books are as real as real-life people. Perhaps the best example of the kind of human being in his pages is the girl the hero either loves or comes to love. There is not one in every book (Francis has succeeded in bringing considerable variety to thrillers that might, with their customary Turf settings or references, have become formula affairs), but she has featured often enough to be easily identifiable as a certain sort of person. She will have some grave handicap, such as needing to live in an iron lung, or simply being widowed, or, as in The Danger, having been the victim of a cruel kidnapping. Many thriller writers would not dare to use such people because the reality of their situation would show up the tinsel world around them. But Francis is tough enough, and compassionate enough, to be able to write about such things.

His knowledge of the effects of tragedy comes from his own experience. While his wife was expecting their first child she was struck down by poliomyelitis and confined to an iron lung. It is from personal experience, too, that the typically stoic Francis hero comes. One of the few complaints that have been made about the books is that the hero (usually a different one each time, a jockey, a horse-owner, a trainer, a painter, a film star, an accountant, a photographer, a merchant banker) is too tough to be credible. But the fact is that most critics are not used to taking actual physical hard knocks; Francis, the jumps jockey, was. So if you look carefully at what he says happens when one of his heroes gets beaten up (as almost invariably they do) you find that, unlike many a pseudo-Bond or carbon-copy private eye, he gets really hurt and recovers only as fast as a physically fit and resilient man would in real life.

A Francis hero will have another important characteristic: he will be a man not scared of judging. He weighs up the police he meets and sees them for what they are: tough men, good men, nasty men, weak men, tough women, greedy women, sensitive women. And, more than this, the Francis books make judgments on a wider scale. By its particular choice of hero each one addresses some particular human dilemma. Slay-Ride, for instance, though it might seem to be no more than a good story about dirty work on the Norwegian race-courses, is in fact a book about what it is like to be the parent of children, to give these hostages to fortune, to be taking part in the continuing pattern of human existence. Similarly Reflex is about the need to accept inevitable change, and Twice Shy is about the acquiring of maturity.

In To the Hilt, a wealthy artist is summoned to be with his stepfather at the latter's deathbed, and events soon hurl the protagonist into a melange of circumstances from which only Francis could untangle him. Less successful is 10-lb. Penalty or its narrator, a 17-year-old naturally lacking in the voice that would compel adult readers to care fully about his work campaigning for his father's parliamentary election. Francis's 40th novel, Second Wind, likewise runs a little thin in spots. Perry Stuart, a TV weatherman, finds himself washed up on a Caribbean island where he discovers a safe containing a mysterious folder. Soon afterward he is rescuedby men in radiation-protection gear.

The Edge, though an exciting puzzle set on a Canadian train with a cargo of bloodstock and a posse of actors playing a "murder mystery," is fundamentally about the need "to retain order," and all its events reflect this. In Straight Francis takes the last yards of a jumps race course, "the straight," as illustrating a man facing the end of a particular career (a jockey, once again), but he also goes deeper by saying something about that human ideal of being "straight." It is such subtle themes that give the Francis books the weight that lifts them right out of the run of good but ordinary thrillers.

H.R.F. Keating

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Francis, Dick

Dick Francis (Richard Stanley Francis), 1920–2010, English novelist. He was a champion steeplechase jockey (1946–57) and a racing writer for a London newspaper (1957–73). Francis parlayed his knowledge of horse racing into successful mystery novels (he wrote more than 40), most of which share racetrack settings or elements. They include Dead Cert (1962, film 1974), his first mystery; Twice Shy (1982); Break In (1986); 10 Lb. Penalty (1997); Field of Thirteen (1998); and Under Orders (2006). Several of his stories have been adapted for television. He also teamed up with his son Felix Francis to write three novels, Dead Heat (2007), Silks (2008), and Even Money (2009). His autobiography, The Sport of Queens (1957, repr. 1986, 1993), chronicles his life through his years as a jockey.

See J. Swanson and D. James, The Dick Francis Companion (2003); S. Sugden, A Dick Francis Companion: Characters, Horses, Plots, Settings and Themes (2008); studies by M. Barnes (1986) and J. M. Davis (1989).

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