Dick Francis dies at 89.

Author Dick Francis died yesterday at age 89.

I’ve been reading Dick Francis books since, well, since I could read.

They were among the first “grown up” books that I read. I gobbled them up because combined my two favorite things: horses and mysteries. Even better, he wrote 42 books, so there was plenty to read. My mother (a non horse person) also enjoyed them. We’d go to the library and come back with our arms laden with books and curl up on the sofa and read. They gave me endless hours of pleasure.

I read Dick Francis in college when I needed to take a break from studying and term papers.

I read Dick Francis when I moved away from home to take my

first job and I hardly knew a sole.

I read Dick Francis on planes when I was traveling for business and on beaches and by the pool while my kids played.

Most recently I’ve listened to Dick Francis on audiobooks when I’m doing chores at the barn. Each time I enter into the world of one of his books I’ve enjoyed the plot, the humanity of his protagonists and, of course, the horses.

When I first started reading Dick Francis I had no idea of his distinguished career as a jockey. He rode for the Queen Mother from 1953-1957. He was finally persuaded to retire after a final bad fall when he was trampled by several horses and kicked in the stomach. He once said that on average he hit the ground once every 12 races. Given that he rode in 2,305 races (winning 345 of them), that’s a lot of falls.

His greatest ambition was to win the Grand National. He came dishearteningly close — he was once second and then, the last time he rode in the race, in 1956, his horse Devon Loch, inexplicably fell 50 yards from the finish line while

Dick Francis riding Finnure in the Champion Chase in 1950.

in the lead (see a video of the race below).

Francis turned to writing novels after working for a time as a racing correspondent and publishing his autobiography. He published his first novel in 1962 and delivered one every year thereafter until his wife, Mary died in 2000. After that there was a six year hiatus until he published a book with his son, Felix.

According to an article in the Telegraph,

Francis picked up ideas for his novels in his travels round the world’s racecourses. The idea for Slay Ride (1973), for example, came to him when he was in Oslo for the Norwegian Grand National in 1972. It was a small and charming course with a pond in the middle – “Just the place to find a body”, Francis remarked – and the book was all about a corpse discovered in the pond at the Oslo racecourse. The Norwegians repaid the compliment by naming one of their races the Dick Francis Handicap.

Sometimes Francis claimed that he would begin a book with no preconceived plans at all: “I just start with a first line. With Enquiry (1969) we said ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen to a jockey?’ and I wrote down: ‘Yesterday, I lost my licence.’ The rest of the book just followed from that. There is no going back. I start on page one and go straight on to the end. I never scrap a chapter or change my mind halfway.”

Certainly Mary played a key role in the research that made the books so enjoyable. Again, the Telegraph article says.
She was the one who did all the background research: for Flying Finish (1966), she learned to fly, produced a book about flying, then started an air taxi service which she ran for seven years. She learned to paint for In the Frame (1976) and became such an accomplished photographer for Reflex (1980) that she was asked to take a picture of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for a book’s dust-jacket.

According to Graham Lord, who wrote a biography of Francis writes in the Daily Mail that, “In 1980, Mary told me: ‘Yes, Dick would like me to have all the credit for them, but believe me, it’s much better for everyone, including the readers, to think that he writes them because they’re taut, masculine books that might otherwise lose their credibility.”

For all Francis fans there is only one bright spot. There is one last book co-authored by Francis and Felix that is due out later this year.


3 thoughts on “Dick Francis dies at 89.

  1. Beautiful tribute to Dick Francis. I’ve read every single one of his books too. 🙂 I knew he’d been a jockey, but was unaware how close he came to winning the Grand National. Thanks for sharing the clip. It reminds me again why I don’t jump. (yes, that wild screaming coming from your speakers is me.)

    I’m struck by how cavalier the announcer is over downed horses and riders. I notice a few of the jockey stood up, then didn’t move, and realized they couldn’t see over the jump to know where the field was coming. They could cause a wreck by moving (or not!). Wow!

Leave a Reply