I was very sorry to learn today of the death of Dick Francis. Among his many accomplishments was the ability to make novels with a horse racing background appealing to people who, like me, had no interest whatsoever in that particular sport. He managed it with a combination of pacy, no-nonsense writing and careful attention to the detail of his backgrounds. There was always an authentic tang about a Dick Francis novel, and this attracted the approval of reviewers and commentators on crime fiction, as well as the devotion of the countless readers who turned his books into best-sellers. Because, as a jockey, he knew what it was to experience pain, when his heroes got hurt, they felt it. But in the end they triumphed nonetheless.
After previously sampling one or two of his early novels in a casual way, I finally became hooked on Dick Francis in the1980s. Titles such as Banker (a special favourite of mine), Reflex, Proof, Twice Shy and Hot Money were first class examples of the action thriller. His stories often benefited from providing an interesting insight into a world other than horse racing (the title of Banker speaks for itself; Reflex was about photography, and so on.) Of his later books, I particularly enjoyed Come to Grief, which marked the return of his occasional protagonist Sid Halley, and which was rather darker in tone than the typical Francis novel.
His wife Mary, who died some years ago, evidently contributed to the books’ merits; in recent years his son Felix has been acknowledged as a co-author. The Francis brand was impressive; many other sportsmen and women have written thrillers, trying to emulate his success. But none of them, I think it’s safe to say, have quite equalled his achievements.
Quite apart from his novels, Dick Francis also wrote a number of twisty short stories, and when I was putting together an anthology to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Crime Writers’ Association, Mysterious Pleasures, he was generous enough to contribute to the book. His story, ‘The Gift’, is a very good one.
The sustained excellence of his writing career was marked by various honours, notably the CWA Diamond Dagger. There was a lack of pretension about Francis’s writing that, I gather from those who knew him well, was matched by a very likeable personality. Some time ago, I had the chance to meet him in person at long last, but reluctantly had to forego it because of other commitments. I did entertain the hope that, as a member of the Detection Club, one day I might have the chance to chat with him over dinner. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, but like so many others, I appreciated his ability to intrigue and entertain and mourn his passing.