Jockey and war hero was Dead Cert to write thrillers

Dick Francis mined his RAF and riding careers to author 44 crime novels. The first was published 50 years ago, says Declan Burke

Jockey and war hero was Dead Cert to write thrillers

DICK FRANCIS wrote 44 thrillers set in the world of horseracing. His first, Dead Cert, was published 50 years ago this month. In his career, Francis sold 60m copies. But few of the former jockey’s heroes came close to matching his own exploits, both on and off the track. Born in Pembrokeshire in Wales in 1920, Richard Stanley Francis grew up the son of a jockey, in Berkshire, England.

Francis left school without qualifications at the age of 15, determined to become a jockey. He became a trainer in 1938, and volunteered for the cavalry when war broke out in 1939. Francis spent the war in the RAF, mostly billeted in Africa, flying Spitfires and Hurricanes and, later, bombing missions. By comparison, his post-war career as a jockey must have seemed tame. Francis wasn’t just another jockey, however. He rode 350 winners and became champion jockey in 1954, serving as the Queen Mother’s jockey from 1953 to 1957.

Famously, or infamously, he was riding Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National when the horse, five lengths clear and only 40 yards from the finish line, suddenly collapsed. That loss, Francis said in later years, was his life’s greatest regret.

He had much to console him. After retiring as a jockey, Francis published a well-received autobiography, The Sport of Queens, in 1957. Offered the job as racing correspondent for the Sunday Express, he held the position for 16 years.

In retrospect, given his insider’s knowledge of racing, as a jockey and a journalist, and his heroic service during the war, it seemed inevitable that Francis would write fiction.

Like Dead Cert, most of Francis’s books were set against the shady backdrop of the racing world, many with jockey Alan York as their hero. Not all of Francis’s protagonists were jockeys. Francis was fascinated by a variety of professions, and his heroes were private investigators, pilots, artists, antique dealers and government agents, and a wine merchant.

Francis published a book per year for the following 38 years (all but two were novels: A Jockey’s Life (1986) was a biography of Lester Piggott, while Field of 13 (1998) was his only collection of short stories). He quickly built up a loyal following, and his popularity was matched by critical plaudits.

Odds Against (1965), Flying Finish (1966) and Blood Sport (1967) were all shortlisted for the prestigious Edgar award, the US crime-writing equivalent of the Oscar. Forfeit (1968) finally won Francis the Edgar. He would win the prize twice more, for Whip Hand (1979) and Come to Grief (1992). Whip Hand also won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger, the most prestigious crime-writing prize in the UK. In 1989, the CWA awarded Francis the Cartier Diamond Dagger, its lifetime achievement award, while the Mystery Writers of America bestowed on him its highest award, that of grand master, in 1996.

Francis’s honours weren’t confined to crime writing. He was awarded the OBE in 1983, and the CBE in 2000. In 1999, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

The last four Dick Francis novels were co-authored with his son, Felix. The first of these, Dead Heat, appeared in 2006.

The idea that the whip could simply be handed down from father to son seemed rather presumptuous, but Francis was honest about having always collaborated on his novels.

Francis met his wife, Mary, in 1945, and they married two years later, despite their families’ disapproval. A publisher’s reader and later a pilot, Mary was Francis’s chief researcher for the books, although he said she brought much more to the process than research. “I am Richard,” he said late in life, “Mary was Mary, and Dick Francis was the two of us together.”

A biography of Francis, published in 1999, Graham Lord’s A Racing Life, alleges that Mary Francis was the ‘ghost writer’ of the Dick Francis novels, but that the publishing world — and readers in particular — demanded that the taut, muscular thrillers bear a male name.

Lord said he believed Francis was frustrated by debate about authorship, and wished that his wife received the credit she was due.

Dick and Mary Francis moved from England to Florida in the 1980s, and relocated to the Cayman Islands in the early 1990s, where Mary died in 2000. Dick’s later years were plagued by ill-health. He had a heart by-pass in 2006, and his right leg was amputated in 2007.

Dick Francis died on Grand Cayman on Feb 14, 2010. He had published 46 books, and been translated into 35 languages. His name and his legacy live on through his son, who last year published the first ‘Dick Francis Novel’, Gamble, under the name of Felix Francis.

The essential Dick Francis

Dead Cert (1962)

Was Francis drawing on his Devon Loch experience when he wrote about a horse suffering a suspicious fall? The hero, Alan York, knows sabotage when he sees it and sets out to investigate in this auspicious debut.

Forfeit (1968)

Racing correspondent James Tyrone sniffs out a story and sets in train an explosive series of events, in the novel that finally won Francis the Edgar award in the US, after four straight years of being nominated.

Whip Hand (1979)

Former jockey Sid Halley investigates an owners’ syndicate that appears to specialise in violent kidnapping. Whip Hand won Francis the Edgar, and the UK’s Gold Dagger Award.

Come to Grief (1995)

Sid Halley returns for the third time, in a tale of personal betrayal and brutal violence. Come to Grief was the third novel to win Francis the prestigious Edgar.

Dead Heat (2006)

No jockey hero this time, but chef Max Moreton, whose position as a celebrity cook to the racing circuit is jeopardised — along with his life — by an outbreak of food poisoning. Was it sabotage? The first Dick/ Felix Francis collaboration.

FELIX FRANCIS: Taking the Reins

Dick Francis was always happy to acknowledge in private the part his wife Mary played in collaborating on his novels (see main feature), but it was his son Felix who became Dick Francis’s official collaborator with Dead Heat in 2006.

Originally a physics teacher, Felix left education behind in order to first become his father’s business manager, and then his co-author. They worked together for 40 years before finally taking the decision to write together. They published four novels in total: Dead Heat, Silks (2008), Even Money (2009) and Crossfire (2010). The pair were working on Crossfire when Dick died on Feb 14, 2010.

Felix Francis has continued to publish novels in the wake of his father’s death. Gamble appeared in Sept 2011, described on the cover as ‘A Dick Francis Novel’ written by Felix Francis. Bloodline, which is similarly described, is published by Felix Francis this month.

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