Francis, Dick 1920–
Francis, Dick 1920–
(Richard Stanley Francis)
PERSONAL: Born October 31, 1920, in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales; son of George Vincent (a professional steeplechase rider and stable manager) and Molly (Thomas) Francis; married Mary Brenchley (a teacher and assistant stage manager), June 21, 1947 (died, September 30, 2000); children: Merrick, Felix. Education: Attended Maidenhead County School. Religion: Church of England. Hobbies and other interests: Boating, fox hunting, tennis.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o John Johnson Ltd., 45/46 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0HT, England.
CAREER: Novelist. Amateur steeplechase rider, 1946–48; professional steeplechase jockey, 1948–57; Sunday Express, London, England, racing correspondent, 1957–73. Military service: Royal Air Force, 1940–46; became flying officer (pilot).
MEMBER: Crime Writers Association (chair, 1973–74), Mystery Writers of America, Writers of Canada, Detection Club, Racecourse Association, Garrick Club (London, England).
AWARDS, HONORS: Steeplechase jockey championship, 1954; Silver Dagger Award, Crime Writers Association, 1965, for For Kicks; Edgar Allan Poe Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1969, for Forfeit, 1980, for Whip Hand, and 1996, for Come to Grief; Gold Dagger Award, Crime Writers Association, 1980, for Whip Hand; named commander, Order of the British Empire, 1984; L.H.D., Tufts University, 1991; Grand Master Award and Best Novel award, Mystery Writers of America, both 1996, both for Come to Grief; elected fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1997.
Nerve, Harper (New York, NY), 1964, reprinted, Armchair Detective Library (New York, NY), 1990.
For Kicks, Harper (New York, NY), 1965, reprinted, Armchair Detective Library (New York, NY), 1990.
Odds Against, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1965, Harper (New York, NY), 1966, reprinted, Edito-Service S.A. (Geneva, Switzerland), 1982.
Flying Finish, Michael Joseph (London England), 1966, Harper (New York, NY), 1967.
Blood Sport, Harper (New York, NY), 1967.
Forfeit, Harper (New York, NY), 1968.
Enquiry, Harper (New York, NY), 1969.
Rat Race, Harper (New York, NY), 1970.
Bonecrack, Harper (New York, NY), 1971.
Smokescreen, Harper (New York, NY), 1972.
Slayride, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
Knockdown, Harper (New York, NY), 1974.
High Stakes, Harper (New York, NY), 1975.
In the Frame, Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
Risk, Harper (New York, NY), 1977.
Trial Run, Harper (New York, NY), 1978.
Whip Hand, Harper (New York, NY), 1979, reprinted, ImPress (Pleasantville, NY), 2001.
Reflex, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1980, Putnam (New York, NY), 1981.
Twice Shy, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1981, Putnam (New York, NY), 1982.
Banker, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1982, Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.
The Danger, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1983, Putnam (New York, NY), 1984.
Proof, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1984, Putnam (New York, NY), 1985.
Break In, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1985, Putnam (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted, Jove Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Bolt, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1986, Putnam (New York, NY), 1987.
Hot Money, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1987, Putnam (New York, NY), 1988.
The Edge, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1988, Putnam (New York, NY), 1989.
Straight, Putnam (New York, NY), 1989.
Longshot, Putnam (New York, NY), 1990.
Comeback, Putnam (New York, NY), 1991.
Driving Force, Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
Decider, Putnam (New York, NY), 1993.
Wild Horses, Putnam (New York, NY), 1994.
Come to Grief, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
To the Hilt, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.
10 Lb. Penalty, Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.
Second Wind, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.
Shattered, Putnam (New York, NY), 2000.
Win, Place, or Show (collection of "Sid Halley" stories), Berkely Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2004.
The Sport of Queens (racing autobiography), Michael Joseph (London, England), 1957, Armchair Detective Library (New York, NY), 1993.
(Editor, with John Welcome) Best Racing and Chasing Stories, Faber (London, England), 1966.
(Editor, with John Welcome) Best Racing and Chasing Stories II, Faber (London, England), 1969.
The Racing Man's Bedside Book, Faber (London, England), 1969.
A Jockey's Life: The Biography of Lester Piggott, Putnam (New York, NY), 1986, published as Lester, the Official Biography, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1986.
(Editor, with John Welcome) The Dick Francis Treasury of Great Racing Stories, G.K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1990.
(Editor, with John Welcome) Classic Lines: More Great Racing Stories, Bellew Publications (London, England), 1991.
(Editor, with John Welcome) The New Treasury of Great Racing Stories, Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
Field of Thirteen (short-story collection), Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.
Work published in anthologies, including Winter's Crimes 5, edited by Virginia Whitaker, Macmillan, 1973; Stories of Crime and Detection, edited by Joan D. Berbrich, McGraw, 1974; Ellery Queen's Crime Wave, Putnam, 1976; and Ellery Queen's Searches and Seizures, Davis, 1977. Contributor to periodicals, including Horseman's Year, Sports Illustrated, In Praise of Hunting, and Stud and Stable.
Francis's works have been translated into Japanese, Norwegian, Czechoslovakian, and thirty-one other languages.
ADAPTATIONS: Dead Cert was filmed by United Artists in 1973; Odds Against was adapted for Yorkshire Television as The Racing Game, 1979, and also broadcast as part of the Public Broadcasting System television series Mystery!, 1980–81. Francis's works were adapted for television as Dick Francis Mysteries, 1989; Blood Sport was adapted for television as Dick Francis: Blood Sport, Comedia Entertainment, 1989. All of Francis's books have been recorded on audiocassette.
SIDELIGHTS: When steeplechase jockey Dick Francis retired from horse racing at age thirty-six, he recalls, he speculated that he would be remembered as "the man who didn't win the National," England's prestigious Grand National steeplechase. If Francis had not turned to fiction, his prediction might have been correct, but with the publication of his first novel, Dead Cert, in 1962, he launched a second career that has become even more successful than his first: he became a mystery writer and since that time has averaged a thriller a year, astounding critics with the fecundity of his imagination.
Francis has garnered important awards such as Britain's Silver Dagger—in 1965 for For Kicks—three "best mystery novel" Edgars—for Forfeit in 1969, Whip Hand in 1980, and Come to Grief in 1996—and the prestigious Grand Master citation from the Mystery Writers of America in 1996. In his autobiography, Sport of Queens, Francis reflects on his books and their success: "I still find the writing … grindingly hard, and I approach Chapter 1 each year with deeper foreboding." Gina MacDonald, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, noted that Francis's method of writing his books is very precise. He usually thinks of a plot by midsummer, and spends the rest of the year researching the book. He finally starts writing the following year and finishes the book by spring. Most of his books concern horses, and racing still figures prominently in his life. This affinity for the racetrack enriches his prose, according to Julian Symons, who declared in the New York Times Book Review that "what comes most naturally to [Francis] is also what he does best—writing about the thrills, spills and chills of horse racing."
Before he began writing, Francis experienced one of racing's most publicized "spills" firsthand. In 1956, when he was already a veteran jockey, he had the privilege of riding Devon Loch—the Queen Mother's horse—in the annual Grand National. Fifty yards from the finish line, with the race virtually won, the horse inexplicably collapsed. Later examination revealed no physical injury and no clue was ever found. "I still don't have the answer," Francis told Peter Axthelm of Newsweek. "Maybe he was shocked by the noise of 250,000 people screaming because the royal family's horse was winning. But the fact is that with nothing wrong with him, ten strides from the winning post he fell. The other fact is," he added, "if that mystery hadn't happened, I might never have written all these other ones."
Though each of his novels deals with what many consider a specialized subject, Francis's books have broad appeal. As Judith Rascoe declared in the Christian Science Monitor, "You needn't know or care anything about racing to be his devoted reader." And, writing in the New York Times, reviewer John Leonard claimed: "Not to read Dick Francis because you don't like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don't like God…. Race tracks and God are subcultures. A writer has to have a subculture to stand upon."
Francis's ability to make this subculture come alive for his readers—to create what Rascoe termed "a background of almost Dickensian realism for his stories"—is what sets him apart from other mystery writers. "In particular," observed Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times, "his rider's view of the strains and spills, disappointments and exaltations of the steeplechase is breathtaking, a far cry from the languid armchair detecting of other crime solvers." Writing in the London magazine, John Welcome expressed similar admiration, especially praising Francis's ability to infuse his races with a significance that extends beyond the Jockey Club milieu: "One can hear the smash of birch, the creak of leather and the rattle of whips. The sweat, the strain, the tears, tragedies and occasional triumphs of the racing game are all there, as well as its seductive beauty. In this—as in much else—no other racing novelist can touch him. He has made racing into a microcosm of the contemporary world."
While critics initially speculated that Francis's specialized knowledge would provide only limited fictional opportunities, most have since changed their minds. "It is fascinating to see how many completely fresh and unexpected plots he can concoct about horses," marveled Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review. Philip Pelham took this approbation one step further, writing in the London magazine that Francis "improves with every book as both a writer of brisk, lucid prose and as a concocter of ingenious and intricately workedout plots." His racetrack thrillers deal with such varied story lines as stolen stallions—Blood Sport—crooks transporting horses by air—Flying Finish—and a jockey who has vanished in Norway—Slayride. To further preserve the freshness of his fiction, Francis creates a new protagonist for each novel and often develops subplots around fields unrelated to racing. "His books," noted Axthelm, "take him and his readers on global explorations as well as into crash courses in ventures like aviation, gold mining and, in Reflex, amateur photography."
Notwithstanding such variations in plot and theme, Francis is known as a formula writer whose novels, while well written, are ultimately predictable. In all the Francis novels, wrote Welcome, "the hard-done-by chap [is] blindly at grips with an unknown evil, the threads of which he gradually unravels. Frequently—perhaps too frequently—he is subjected to physical torture described in some detail. His heroes are hard men used to injury and pain and they learn to dish it out as once they had to learn to take it. Racing has made them stoics."
Barry Bauska, writing in the Armchair Detective, offered a more detailed version of the "typical" Francis thriller. "At the outset something has happened that looks wrong (a jockey is set down by a board of inquiry that seemed predetermined to find him guilty; a horse falls going over a final hurdle it had seemed to clear; horses perfectly ready to win consistently fail to do so). The narrator protagonist (usually not a detective, but always inherently curious) begins to poke around to try to discover what has occurred. In so doing he inevitably pokes too hard and strikes a hornets' nest. The rest of the novel then centers on a critical struggle between the searcher-after-truth and the mysterious agent of evil, whose villainy had upset things in the first place."
Despite the formulaic nature of his work, Francis deals with problems prevalent in modern society, according to Marty Knepper in Twelve Englishmen of Mystery. Knepper felt that Francis's works deal with social and moral issues "seriously and in some depth … including some topics generally considered unpleasant." For example, in Blood Sport the hero is struggling with his own suicidal urges. In Knepper's words, "To read Blood Sport … is to learn what it feels like to be lonely, paranoid and suicidal."
Character development also plays an important part in Francis's novels. Knepper suggested that biographical similarities between Francis's heroes may blind the reader to the important differences among them. For example, Francis's heroes have a wide variety of professions. This gives the author a chance to examine professionalism and the responsibilities that accompany it, in fields other than racing and detection. Each of Francis's heroes, according to Knepper, is "a unique person, but each hero … changes as a result of his adventures."
While a number of Francis's books include a love story, a much more pressing theme, according to Axthelm, is that of pain. "Again and again," the critic wrote in Newsweek, the author's "villains probe the most terrifying physical or psychic weakness in his heroes. A lifetime's most treasured mementos are destroyed by mindless hired thugs; an already crippled hand is brutally smashed until it must be amputated. The deaths in Francis novels usually occur 'offcamera.' The tortures are more intimate affairs, with the reader forced to watch at shudderingly close range."
The prevalence of such violence, coupled with Francis's tendency to paint the relationship between hero and villain as a confrontation between good and evil, have made some reviewers uneasy. In his Times Literary Supplement review of Risk, for example, Alex de Jong commented that "characterization is sometimes thin and stylized, especially the villains, out to inflict pain upon the accountant who has uncovered their villainy, crooked businessmen and trainers, all a little too well dressed, florid and unexpectedly brutal bullies, created with a faint hint of paranoia." Francis, however, justifies the punishment he metes out to his characters as something his fans have come to expect. "Somehow the readers like to read about it," he told Judy Klemesrud in the New York Times Book Review. "But I don't subject them to anything I wouldn't put up with myself. This old body has been knocked around quite a bit."
While the violence of his early novels is largely external, Francis's later novels emphasize more internal stress, according to critics who believe that this shift has added a new dimension to the author's work. Welcome, for instance, observed that in Reflex Francis's lessened emphasis on brutality has enabled him to "flesh out his characters. The portrait of Philip Nore, the mediocre jockey nearing the end of his career, is created with real insight; as is the interpretation of his relations with the horses he rides." MacDonald commented that Francis's more recent books "concentrate more specifically on psychological stress." In her opinion, his writing has gone beyond the "dramatic presentation of heroic action" to a deeper level, where the hero "is less a man who can endure torture than one who has the strength to face self-doubt, fear, and human inadequacy and still endure and thrive." Bauska expressed a similar view when he said that Francis's more current works, although not that different in the plot, focus on the protagonist. According to Bauska, Francis is increasingly "considering what goes into the making not so much of a 'hero' as of a good man." The focus of Francis's work is no longer the war outside, though the books are still action-packed, but on the struggle within the protagonist's mind, and his attempts to conquer his own doubts and fears. Bauska attributed this shift in focus to Francis's own growing distance from his racing days. The result, he said, "is that Dick Francis is becoming less a writer of thrillers and more a creator of literature."
While not all reviewers have found Francis's work to be the stuff of literature, his ability to create nearly every year a fresh racing mystery that still retains a creative spark in its focus and technique has been continually remarked upon. Patricia Craig maintained in the Times Literary Supplement: "Unreality aside, the Dick Francis story line works through a combination of energy and amiability, the doggedness and right-thinking of the central character, and a certain expertise in the evocation of atmosphere." Citing Francis's Driving Force as an example, Craig continued: "Francis shows that he has such a hold on his readers that he can dwell on the properties of horseboxes without fear of being judged uncompelling." Even when Francis returns to the same protagonist, Sid Halley—known to readers of Odds Against, Whip Hand, and Come to Grief—he manages to shed new light on the character. Dick Adler, contributing to the Chicago Tribune, stated: "In spite of a certain predictability in the plot … Come to Grief is in fact one of [Francis's] most engrossing recent efforts."
Francis's continuing ability to engage both new readers and longtime fans in his stories is perhaps his greatest strength. Christopher Wordsworth, reviewing Wild Horses for the London Observer, dubbed the novelist "an institution." Indeed, as Elizabeth Tallent noted in the New York Times Book Review, while Francis's former position as jockey for the Queen Mother is often mentioned in reviews of the writer, "At this point in his illustrious writing career, the Queen Mother might wish to note in her vita that the writer Dick Francis once rode for her."
Francis made an important revelation about his work in the weeks following his wife's death in the autumn of 2000. It had long been understood that Francis himself was a high-school dropout and Mary Francis, who was college-educated, helped to research and edit his books. Only after her death did the author reveal that she indeed helped him to write them as well. "She was more than my right arm, she was both arms, really," he told the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. He added: "Mary never allowed her name to be on the books, but it was a double act really." Francis also intimated that he might not try writing any more novels without her, leading to the possibility that his 2000 title, the aptly named Shattered, might be his final work. Whether or not that proves to be the case, Francis can certainly lay claim to a long and distinguished career. As Emily Melton put it in Booklist, his "ingenious plotting, pareddown writing style, wry humor, and skillful characterizations" make Francis "a sheer delight to read."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Barnes, Melvyn, Dick Francis, Ungar (New York, NY), 1986.
Bestsellers 89, Issue 3, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 42, 1987, Volume 102, 1998.
Davis, J. Madison, Dick Francis, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 87: British Mystery and Thriller Writers since 1940, First Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Francis, Dick, The Sport of Queens, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1957.
Architectural Digest, June, 1985.
Armchair Detective, July, 1978; spring, 1982; winter, 1986; summer, 1993; winter, 1996, p. 102.
Atlantic, March, 1969.
Booklist, January 15, 1986; September 15, 1998, Emily Melton, review of Field of Thirteen, p. 202; September 1, 1999, Emily Melton, review of Second Wind, p. 7; August, 2000, Connie Fletcher, review of Shattered, p. 2073.
British Book News, October, 1984.
Chicago Tribune, October 2, 1994, p. 9; September 3, 1995, p. 4.
Christian Science Monitor, July 17, 1969.
Clues, fall-winter, 2000, Rachel Schaffer, "Dick Francis's Six-Gun Mystique," p. 17.
Family Circle, July, 1970.
Forbes, November 21, 1994, p. 26.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 16, 1985; August 12, 1989.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1995, p. 986.
KnightRidder/Tribune News Service,.
Life, June 6, 1969.
London, February-March, 1975; March, 1980; February-March, 1981.
Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1981; April 9, 1982; September 12, 1984.
National Review, January 20, 1992.
Newsweek, April 6, 1981.
New Yorker, March 15, 1969; April 16, 1984; April 22, 1985.
New York Times, March 6, 1969; April 7, 1971; March 20, 1981; December 18, 1989; October 9, 2000, Doreen Carvajal, "Mary Francis, 76, Quiet Force behind Dick Francis's Novels," p. A19.
New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1965; March 10, 1968; March 16, 1969; June 8, 1969; July 26, 1970; May 21, 1972; July 27, 1975; September 28, 1975; June 13, 1976; July 10, 1977; May 20, 1979; June 1, 1980; March 29, 1981; April 25, 1982; February 12, 1989; March 27, 1983; March 18, 1984; March 24, 1985; March 16, 1986; October 18, 1992, p. 32; October 2, 1994, p. 26; September 10, 2000, Marilyn Stasio, review of Shattered, p. 38.
New York Times Magazine, March 25, 1984.
Observer (London, England), October 2, 1994, p. 18.
People, June 7, 1976; November 23, 1982; January 24, 1994, p. 32; November 22, 1999, "Who Done It? Millions of Books Later, a Mystery Gallops up on Dick Francis: Did His Wife Cowrite His Bestsellers?," p. 202.
Publishers Weekly, January 24, 1986; August 14, 2000, review of Shattered, p. 326.
School Library Journal, January, 1995, p. 145.
Sports Illustrated, November 15, 1993.
Time, March 11, 1974; July 14, 1975; May 31, 1976; July 7, 1978; May 11, 1981.
Times (London, England), December 18, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, October 28, 1977; October 10, 1980; December 10, 1982; October 30, 1992, p. 21; October 7, 1994, p. 30; November 17, 1995, p. 28.
U.S. News and World Report, March 28, 1988.
Washington Post, October 3, 1986.
Washington Post Book World, April 30, 1972; February 18, 1973; April 19, 1980; April 18, 1982; March 27, 1983; March 17, 1985; February 21, 1988; February 5, 1989.