Dick Francis, a top jockey and an even better mystery writer

March 15, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, writers, writing.

When Dick Francis took his horse Devon Loch up over the last hurdle at the 1956 Grand National Steeplechase, he was on top of the British racing world — which was quite a place to be since racing, literally, was the sport of kings. He led the field, and the finish line was in sight. Devon Loch was the Queen Mother’s horse, and the race had not a royal winner in many years.

Little did he know that in the next few seconds he would be spiraled into the pitch and thrown into a new life that would eventually make him one of the premier mystery writers of the second half of the 20th century.

The loss that day, plus many injuries he had sustained during his years of racing, convinced him to retire. He was 36 years old.

He took a job as the racing correspondent for the Sunday Express, something he did for the next 16 years. He wrote his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, and at some point decided — in part because his journalism job paid so little — that he would try his hand at mystery novels. His first novel, Dead Cert, was published in 1962.

That novel set the pattern for the more than 40 that followed. They all involved the world of horse racing, something that Francis knew from top to bottom and inside out. Each had a different protagonist, a rare exception being Sid Hadley in Odds Against (1965), Whip Hand (1979), Under Orders (2006), and Come to Grief (1995).

Francis would take about a year to write each of his novels, and he had a great deal of help from his wife Mary, who often did much of the research. He wanted to include her in the byline, but she always refused.

Francis’ writing process was slow and methodical. He would write a sentence and work on it until he got it right. Then he would write the next sentence in the same painstaking way. Once he was finished with a sentence, chapter, or manuscript, he would never rewrite it.

The former jockey also believed in getting out of the gate quickly. First sentences and first paragraphs hooked readers immediately. For instance, here are the first lines of Come to Grief (which I am reading at the moment):

I had this friend, you see, that everyone loved.

(My name is Sid Hadley.)

I had this friend that everyone love, and I put him on trial.

The trouble with working as an investigator, as I had been doing for approaching five years, was that occasionally one turned up facts that surprised and appalled and smashed peaceful lives forever . . . .

In the 1980s, after his novels had become popular in the United States, Francis moved to Florida. Later he and Mary moved to the Cayman Islands. Francis kept writing until his wife died in 2000. In 2006 he collaborated with his son Felix on a novel, and they published several together before his death in 2010.

Francis won every major award there was for crime and mystery writing and was unassailably a master at his craft.

Neil Nyren has a good review of Francis’ work in this article on CrimeReads (Dick Francis: A Crime Reader’s Guide to the Classics | CrimeReads), and here is Francis’ obit in the New York Times: Dick Francis, British Jockey and Thriller Writer, Dies at 89 – The New York Times.


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