Dick Francis: Behind the Beloved Brit Author’s Brand
Dick Francis: it’s a brand, a name for a series of racetrack-based novels begun by a fellow named Dick Francis and carried on by his son, Felix Francis, whose books carry the banner “A Dick Francis Novel” on their front covers.
But before that, Dick Francis was a man, and a remarkable one at that: a grandson and son of trainers and jockeys, himself first a National Hunt jockey who rode for Queen Elizabeth (commonly known as The Queen Mother), champion rider in 1953 and 1954, and the winner of more than 350 races, and then a best-selling, award-winning author of more than forty novels, distinctively titled with racing-centric titles like Whip Hand and Dead Heat.
Francis was a sensational rider, but perhaps it isn’t surprising that a writer who specialized in writing about misfortune and crime at the racetracks had a bitter disappointment in his career. One of his most sensational — and famous — rides ended in defeat, with a royal horse named Devon Loch.
When I Googled the name “Devon Loch,” the words “Grand National Disaster 1956” auto-filled the search bar.
Don’t worry — Devon Loch doesn’t die at the end of the story; in fact, he doesn’t even come up lame, and goes on to win two more races. But that day in 1956, the Queen’s Mother’s nine year old gelding, declared certain to win by the race-caller, suddenly did something bizarre in the homestretch run and found himself flat on his stomach. Did he jump a shadow? Spook and slip? No one knows. But by the time he was back on his feet, the race was well over without him.
In the video of the race, the slip occurs at 1:30. Remember: he gets up and walks away sound!
In the Guardian’s obituary of Dick Francis, run in February of 2010, Devon Loch’s strange incident was the central topic. Francis was quoted: “The Devon Loch episode is still a terrible memory, even after all these years. I had had a terrific ride for four and a quarter miles on him and he pricked his ears up and I believe that is when the noise of the crowd hit him.
“I’ve looked at the newsreel time and time again and just as we were approaching the water jump, which he jumped on the first circuit, you see the horse prick his ears and his hindquarters just refused to work.”
In the course of all this racing, Francis had received his share of injury and pain. “I’ve had a fractured skull, six broken collar bones, five broken noses, no end of ribs. Well, you simply stop countin’,” he told the Guardian. And there was no time off for a jockey: Francis packed his injuries tight and went out to ride again the next day.
It was not long after the Devon Loch Grand National when Francis had retired and written his autobiography, The Sport of Queens. But it was fiction that would make him famous all over again. While working on a racing column for the Sunday Express, Francis started to write thrillers as well. His publisher had a right of first refusal for his next offering, and when he sent them his first novel, Dead Cert, they agreed to publish it. And so began the Dick Francis novels, an absolute cavalry charge of them.
Although known as the jockey-author, Francis didn’t just write about what he knew. The racetrack served as a backdrop for all sorts of befuddled characters, drawn into the cutthroat world of fast horses by fate, and it was their many-varied occupations that Francis’s wife, Mary studied painstakingly, learning to fly for Flying Finish and painting for In the Frame. Francis’s male heroes shared certain qualities: they were generally a mild-mannered, unpretentious sort of fellow, devoted husbands, resourceful when pressed into unexpected detective work: the Guardian describes them best as “intrepid and resourceful and as vigorously heterosexual as James Bond,” and Francis delights in putting these quiet men through all sorts of physical and mental anguish before allowing them to limp into the final scene, accept the congratulations of the local constabulary, and shuffle off to try to sort out their love lives.
Dick and Mary’s joint pursuits allowed him to release a book a year for 38 years. And so when Mary passed away in 2000, the books ended.
“Felix changed things.” Francis told the Guardian in 2009. He was talking about his son, Felix Francis, who became his collaborator and then the writer of the “Dick Francis novels” after his father’s death. “He said, ‘You’ve not written a book now for five years.’ And he knew that was because my wife had been the driving force behind all the books. I said, ‘I can’t write any more now Mary’s gone.’ But he said, ‘Yes you can – I’ll help you.’”
And so the family tradition that began with riding racehorses and segued into writing about them continues, with another Francis to take the reins, writing bestselling thrillers with the same tight, terse prose, good-guy main characters, and deeply researched stories that made Dick Francis novels a household name long before they were a brand.
New to “Dick Francis Novels” and wondering where to get started”
Comeback - A diplomat and an equine veterinarian seek to uncover why horses at an equine hospital are dying at an alarming rate.
Nerve - One of Francis’ first novels, Nerve follows a young jockey in his quest for revenge and a return to racing shape after a deranged attacker kidnaps him, tortures him, and leaves him for dead.
Forfeit - A racing journalist, startled by the sudden (and suspicious) death of a colleague, finds himself too close to a corrupt race-fixing scheme, which threatens the very life of his invalid wife.
Natalie Keller Reinert is an author and horsewoman from Brooklyn, New York. A lifelong Thoroughbred enthusiast, she is founder and editor of Retired Racehorse Blog. Her first novel, The Head and Not The Heart, was released in 2011. Follow Natalie on Twitter at @nataliegallops.
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