Posted by: wrmcnutt | February 19, 2010

RIP Dick Francis

Damn.  One of my favorite authors has snuffed it. I refer, of course, to the utterly inimitable Richard “Dick” Francis, whose novels submerge the reader in the world of British horse racing.

Dick’s career began when a life-changing incident occurred in his prior career as a jockey.  He was representing the Queen Mother in the Grand National race, and he was winning.  Now, the Queen Mother was, at the time, quite the beloved figure.  And her horse hand never won.  It was something of a fashion to root for her, rather like rooting for the Chicago Cubs is in this country.  Dick was out in front, with a good lead, and the horse fell.  And it did not stumble or tumble.  Oh, no, it fell in a spectacular and cinematic manner.  I was surprised when I couldn’t find it on Youtube for you, ’cause every TV interview I’ve seen with the man had it inflicted on him.  UPDATE:  Found it!  “The most tragic defeat in Grand National History.” The key moment starts at about 6:15.  Owtch!  That’s GOTTA hurt.

Mind you, this wasn’t a career-ender by itself.  Dick’s record stand for itself. Francis was actually one of the most successful National Hunt jockey’s riding during the post-World War II era.  During his career he won more than 350 races.  But when he took his spectacularly televised fall, he as 36, and mid-career for a jockey.  Like all jockeys, you could trace his career by his broken bones.  The accumulation of more-than-usual injuries together with his rather spectacular loss led him to retire early.  From the turf he became a journalist, when a chance meeting with a booking agent convinced him to write a book.  He started with a memoir, and then wrote his first novel.

He was the living, breathing example of “write what you know.”  He wrote about people who rode horses. He wrote about people who owned horses.  He wrote about people who who painted pictures of people who rode horses.  He wrote about people who were related to people who insured OTHER PEOPLE’s horses. While there were occasional forays to America, ninety-nine percent of the story was set in Britain.

The thing is, you didn’t have to be interested in the horsey set to enjoy his work.  Francis’ world was set with vast and thundering herds of three dimensional characters.  His books were formulaic, but it was a good formula, and he executed it well.  His heroes were flawed, but strong and upright.  His villains were wicked, but not without their good side, which often made them not only more tragic, but more of a surprise.  I’ll never forget the reveal of the gentle, grandfatherly guardian who turned out to be the head of a vicious mob of violent thugs.  His settings were so rich and detailed, I could swear that I know my way around Newmarket Heath.

I first started reading Francis because watching data run to tape can be tedious, especially if there’s not thing on the display but “please wait.”  Around the corner from the computer room was a really great bookstore, now long gone, called Davis/Kidd.  They had hardwood bookshelves and a rich selection of mysteries. I was attracted to Francis’ books because there were a lot of them, and I had to sit through the entire backup.  We had no tape changer, so I had to change the reels.  Yes, reels.  It was a long time ago.  Anway, Francis’ work covered an entire shelf.  So every day I would head down to the bookstore, buy another Dick Francis book.  I’d stop by the Subway, buy a sandwich, and then munch my way through the two and a half our backup, while reading the latest Dick Francis.  It was an expensive habit, but I got through his entire body of work in a couple of months, and I never regretted a dime.

Raise a glass if you will, to Dick Francis, and the hope that hope that somewhere, the Sargent Major is playing “First Call,” and the tapes are about to go up.

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  1. I have never read a single Dick Francis book, but he is still one of my favorite mystery authors. Growing up one of the few bonding experiences my dad and I shared was an addiction to the PBS Mystery! program. Every Thursday night we were glued to the set for Rumpole and Sherlock Holmes and of course Dick Francis.

    [Raises a glass]

  2. I love his books. Martin and I read them on tape mostly. I still think my favorite is “the decider” that is one seriously flawed, but easy to love hero.

    I am sorry to hear he is gone.

    • My favorite is Whip Hand, but I like all three of the Sid Halley books. I find Sid’s core courage to be inspiring. It’s not the being beaten nearly to death, or the rides in runaway hot air balloons illegally in the jet lanes. Oh, no. Sid Halley was a jockey. He wanted to be a jockey when he was a boy, and he was THE jockey when he was an adult. And then he lost a hand. The journey back from that, and the courage it took to find a future that would bring him as much contentment as being a champion steelplechase rider.

      I also liked his logic:
      The bad guys have threatened my female. While my female would be safer in the short run if I capitulated, then OTHER bad guys would know that they could get to me through her, and she would always be at risk. Therefore, the public position must be: anybody who threatens the female gets burned down, knocked over, and stomped into the swamp. (I paraphrase.)

  3. Watched the You Tube of the race. It’s a miracle the horse didn’t break a leg!

    • Actually, given the nature of the fall, I was shocked that it didn’t pull all four hamstrings, or whatever it is that horses use for hamstrings. Owie.

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