World Literature

Dick Francis

 

BORN: 1920, Coedcanlas, Tenby, Wales

NATIONALITY: British, Welsh

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Sport of Queens (1957)

For Kicks (1965)

Rat Race (1970)

Come to Grief (1995)

 

 

Dick Francis. Francis, Dick, photograph.© Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

The name Dick Francis is synonymous with thrillers and horse racing. A former steeplechase champion, Francis has used his thorough knowledge of the ‘‘sport of kings’’ as the basis for almost all of the thirty-odd novels he has produced since 1962. His novels have been translated into nearly two dozen languages and have sold more than 20 million copies. Although his stories generally follow a formula, the character development, sharply observed details and lean, fluid prose raise his best work to the status of literature. His dialogue captures the nuances of social class as he throws together the echelons of equine sports: owners, trainers, jockeys, stable lads, bookmakers, and touts (people who gather information about racehorses and sell it to bettors). Both entertaining and masterful, Francis’s novels fuse the best in the American detective genre and the European murder mystery.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Dreams of Being a Jockey. Richard Stanley Francis was born on October 31, 1920, at Coedcanlas, his maternal grandfather’s farm near Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales. His father, George Vincent Francis, a professional steeplechase jockey before World War i, became the manager of W. J. Smith’s stables at Holyport, near Maidenhead.

Francis learned to ride at age five and showed horses at age twelve. He vowed at age fifteen to become a professional jockey and helped race, train, transport, and show horses for his father, first at Holyport, then at the family stables near Wokingham. During World War II, he flew fighter planes, troop-carrying gliders, and Wellington bombers for the Royal Air Force. After the war, Francis returned to racing, first as an amateur (tacitly taking under-the-table ‘‘gifts’’ from grateful owners), then as a professional. The conflict he experienced firsthand between amateurs and professionals in the world of horseracing is the source for much of the tension found in many of his novels.

Mystery Leads to Mystery. Francis first came to the public eye as a victim in one of the most unusual sports mishaps of the century. In the British Grand National steeplechase, considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious horse racing event, Francis was riding Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse. Having just cleared the last jump, Francis was headed toward victory at the finish post when the horse suddenly and inexplicably collapsed. Francis never discovered what had startled his horse, but that single event turned into a triumph grander than the seasoned jockey could ever have imagined: The accident actually marked the beginning of his writing career.

A literary agent’s continued interest in Francis’s perspective of the race led him to write his autobiography. ‘‘The one good thing about an autobiography as a first introduction to writing is that at least you don’t have to research the subject: the story is all there in your own head,’’ Francis stated in The Sport of Queens. In 1957, the same year the work was published, Francis retired as a jockey and began covering horseracing for London’s Sunday Express.

Economic necessity, more than anything else, led Francis to try his hand at fiction writing. The mystery surrounding his loss at the Grand National seemed a natural inspiration for a mystery—but this time, it was one he could solve. His debut novel, Dead Cert, sold well enough for him to consider writing another one. Since 1964, with the appearance of his second novel, Francis’s fans have been able to read a new novel by their favorite author each year. Rather than looking for Francis in the winner’s circle at the racetrack, his fans on both sides of the Atlantic know to find him on the bestseller lists.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Francis's famous contemporaries include:

Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965): Rampo, an admirer of western mystery writers, was Japan's first modern mystery writer and the founder of the Detective Story Club in Japan.

Frederick Busch (1941-2006): A prolific American writer, Busch's work delved into nontraditional detective stories.

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961): With his lean prose style and cynical detective character, Hammett effectively invented hard-boiled detective fiction.

Cary Grant (1904-1986): This English actor performed in a multitude of films over his long career, including movies as diverse as lighthearted comedies, musicals, and Alfred Hitchcock thrillers.

Ellis Parker (1871-1940): Parker was the ''American Sherlock Holmes'' who solved 98 percent of the murders he pursued; however, Parker himself violated the law in pursuit of the truth about the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby and died in prison.

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980): A master of cinematic suspense, Hitchcock gained international recognition for his intricate plots, insight into human psychology, and unique camera techniques.

 

Works in Literary Context

Francis had long been a devotee of detective fiction. As a child, he read Arthur Conan Doyle, Nat Gould (a pre-World War I English racing writer), and Edgar Wallace. As he grew older, he read authors such as Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Gavin Lyall, and Michael Underwood. A meticulous researcher, Francis has taken the best of his predecessors and improved upon them to create his nearly forty books.

Classic and Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction. Paving the way for what is known as the Golden Age of classic detective fiction, The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, is usually regarded as the prototype for the full-length detective novel in England. Characteristics of the classic form include:

an unquestionably upright, genteel hero of sound principles;

offstage deaths that distance the reader from violence;

an objective search for a pattern of clues amid red herrings;

a carefully reasoned elimination of suspects with a personal motivation for seeking justice.

Partly in response to the rising crime and gangster activity caused by Prohibition and the Great Depression, the American school of hard-boiled detective fiction began to replace the classic British form. The hard-boiled detective novel differs from the classic in several ways:

The main character is a tough, cynical, down-to-earth detective who is capable of violence and mistrusted by the police.

The ability to reasonably solve a murder is secondary to the capability to fight one’s way out of dangerous situations.

Murder takes place around the protagonist on an ongoing basis.

The search for a criminal involves questions of loyalty and personal betrayal and ends with personal solutions.

The story culminates with a physical confrontation between investigator and criminal.

Francis’s skill in merging the best of the classical and the hard-boiled detective fiction traditions is a large part of what gives the Francis adventure novel its power and appeal. Francis surpasses his predecessors by building on both English and American detective traditions in his focus on vigilante justice. His approach to justice differs from the more conventional form seen in detective traditions in which the ‘‘bad guy gets what’s coming to him’’ by means of the justice system.

Legacy. It is difficult to assess the legacy of a writer who is still working, but in terms of Francis’s tweaking of the traditional detective form, it is clear that the same vigilante approach to justice appears in graphic novels such as Sin City, novels in which lone figures mete out justice according to the misdeeds of criminals. In fact, graphic novels often show an affinity for different forms of literature, from detective fiction to more traditional classical literature, including Shakespeare’s. Both Francis and graphic novelists attempt to be equally thrilling and thought-provoking, often proposing answers to the question, How should we live?

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Human beings want to view society as being controlled by justice. Literary and artistic traditions exemplify the struggle humans have experienced in trying to determine whether society and, indeed, the world itself, is so ordered. Francis's work generally suggests that justice will triumph in the end, but others have questioned whether that is so. Here are some pieces that analyze the role justice plays in the world:

The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), a novel by Alexander Dumas. In this novel, protagonist Edmond Dantes is falsely accused and convicted of treason; after spending years in prison for the crime, he eventually escapes and exacts his own vigilante justice upon those who conspired against him.

A Stout Cord and a Good Drop (2006), a novel by James Gaitis. Gaitis's historical fiction is based on the facts associated with the Montana Vigilantes group, the infamous Montana hanging spree of 1863-64, and the establishment of the Montana Territory during the Civil War.

The Virginian (1902), a novel by Owen Wister. Wister first introduces the idea of frontier justice in this American Western novel.

Without Remorse (1993), a novel by Tom Clancy. A former Navy SEAL (sea, air, land team) systematically eliminates a gang of drug dealers.

 

Works in Critical Context

How could a steeplechase jockey become such a popular writer? By way of explanation, John Mortimer noted in the New York Times Book Review, ‘‘What he brought with him from the race track were the crowd-pulling powers of suspense, surprise and the shared enthusiasm to discover who’s going to win.’’ Perhaps his best trait is the diversity in character and plot he purposefully brings to his writings. ‘‘Despite his standard approach,’’ writes Gina Macdonald in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, ‘‘Francis’s works are never the same. His plots remain fresh, unexpected, solid. They move forward briskly, with an admirable sense of timing, and are lent variety by his interweaving of racing and other concerns.’’ Remarkably, he has managed to continue a five-decade-long writing career with no noticeable slumps. ‘‘The author’s notes for Mr. Francis’s books often observe that as a jockey he rode for the Queen Mother,’’ Elizabeth Tallent observed in the New York Times Book Review. ‘‘At this point in his illustrious writing career,’’ the critic continued, ‘‘the Queen Mother might wish to note in her vita that the writer Dick Francis once rode for her.’’

Francis’s Horse Racing Subculture. Francis has used his horse racing background to give him the framework for his fictional material. Sometimes his novels focus on the racing world, and sometimes the horses are kept in the background, as a side note to add color to the story. Reviewers have noted, however, that even those readers not interested in horseracing can find something to love in a Francis mystery. In the New York Times, John Leonard noted, ‘‘Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky because you don’t like God. Baseball, boarding houses, racetracks and God are subcultures. A writer has to have a subculture to stand on.’’ Critics agree that Francis adeptly describes his own subculture with a realism that does not detract from the storyline.

In a New York Times Book Review critique of Francis’s third novel, For Kicks, published in 1965, Anthony Boucher wrote, ‘‘The background of life among horses and trainers and stable lads (and criminals) is so real you can smell and taste it.’’ In a London Magazine review of Francis’s 1979 thriller, Whip Hand, John Welcome observed, ‘‘Francis can make a race come alive off his pages in thrilling fashion. One can hear the smash of birch, the creak of leather and the rattle of whips.’’ These two volumes won their author recognition from his fellow mystery writers: a Silver Dagger award from the British Crime Writers Association for For Kicks and a Gold Dagger award from the same organization, as well as an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, for Whip Hand.

Improving with Age. Writing in the British Book News, James Melville called Francis ‘‘the author who can truthfully say that his best book is the one most recently published.’’ Based on critical response, Francis’s most recent books stand up well to Melville’s analysis. In School Library Journal, for example, Pam Spencer deemed Francis’s 1991 novel, Comeback, full of ‘‘the same storytelling magic as always,’’ and a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that the book showed Francis’s ‘‘touch with a story as sure as ever.’’ ‘‘All the action, suspicions, and deaths,’’ Jim and Janet Mura observed in Voice of Youth Advocates, ‘‘make for a fast and exciting read.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. It is often said that Dick Francis novels are basically detective novels, but that they are not confined by the conventions of detective novels. Read one of Francis’s detective novels and research the conventions of detective novels. Prepare a PowerPoint presentation illustrating elements of detective fiction, both classic and hard-boiled. In what ways does Francis’s work stretch the boundaries of traditional detective novels?

2. Read one of Francis’s earlier novels and one of his most recent. Do you agree with James Melville’s assessment that Francis’s work has only gotten better with age? Why or why not?

3. Both Dick Francis and Norman MacLane began their literary careers later in life. Using the Internet and the library, research the life of Norman MacLane and write a short paper in which you discuss MacLane’s early life and how it affected his writing in comparison to that of Francis’s.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bargainnier, Earl F., ed. Twelve Englishmen of Mystery. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1984.

Barnes, Melvyn. Dick Francis. New York.: Ungar, 1986.

Periodicals

Bridges, Linda. ‘‘The Mystery as Novel of Manners.’’ National Review (January 20, 1992).

Hauptfuhrer, Fred. ‘‘The Sport of Kings? It’s Knaves that Ex-Jockey Dick Francis Writes Thrillers About.’’ People (June 7, 1976).

Newcombe, Jack. ‘‘Close-up: Jockey with an Eye for Intrigue.’’ Life (June 6, 1969).

Sanoff, Alvin P. ‘‘Finding Intrigue Wherever He Goes.’’ U.S. News & World Report (March 28, 1988).

Stanton, Michael N. ‘‘Dick Francis: The Worth of Human Love.’’ Armchair Detective (Spring 1982).

Ward, Nathan. ‘‘Literary Lairs: Ronald Blythe on the Realm of the British Writer.’’ Architectural Digest (June 1985).