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Best & Worst of Dick Francis


Best & Worst

Each Wednesday I feature a guest post by a book blogger detailing which books they think are the “best” and “worst” by the author of their choice. Visit the series page for more information about the guest bloggers, the featured authors, and the sign-up form.

Please welcome today’s guest blogger: Carrie from What is Carrie up to?, who will be discussing the best and worst of Dick Francis.

I have a particular love for this author of British mysteries.  As an old child and young teenager, I rode hunter-jumper style.  The breed of horse I rode was first Arabian, then Thoroughbred.  I loved my second horse, named ‘Title Examiner’ (his racing name) from the moment I met him in his retirement life in pasture.  His owner who had raced him locally here in Portland had named him after his job–he worked for a title company, and had pastured (and gelded) him when he hadn’t been very fast.  ‘Ty’ as I called him had a second career as a hunter-jumper, the kind you see with jumps on a course.  He was a dear horse, and I loved his big rangy body and his flattening out to outrun the other, non racing alumni, horses.

Dick Francis’ first career was as a jockey.  He was one of the top athletes in the sport and raced Queen Elizabeth’s and the queen mother’s horses.  In retirement, (which comes early even for the longest racing jockey) he turned to writing.  His first book was an autobiography, The Sport of Queens.

He wrote 43 novels in the many years since the publication of his first, Dead Cert, in 1962.  An exciting whodunit, where the method of murder was a fall in the race, it is a great place to start.  It establishes many of the traits of Dick Francis mysteries that persist throughout the years:  The protagonist is male (always, always)  The protagonist is single, but might be interested in not being single anymore.  Our hero works in horse racing in Great Britain.  Or he is somehow tangentially connected to that world, whether as a caterer, horse transport expert, private eye, owner, or filmaker.  He is most likely to be a jockey or former jockey.  Dick Francis writes what he knows.

The books are about more than just horses of course.  People who don’t care about horses or racing will find heroes who are flawed, but who find the kind of grit and integrity to triumph in the end.

secondwindHe wrote most of his books with the help of his wife, Mary Francis, which becomes even more apparent after her death in 2000, the now elder Dick Francis’ novels suffered in quality, which brings me to the worst of Dick Francis:  Second Wind.

Second Wind one of the last books Dick Francis wrote alone.  In 2007, he started writing with his son, Felix, and the books improved quite a bit.  I don’t think it’s necessarily true he couldn’t write a good book alone, but by 2000, he was 79 years old, and that’s a tough time to lose a collaborator.

Second Wind follows the adventures of a BBC meteorologist who is often called upon by the racing community for special forecasts for their interests.  In a plot that can be generously described as garbled, he is involved with intrigue involving some domestic terrorism and nuclear weapons.  So much of the DF cannon is so consistently enjoyable, I shudder to think of people accidentally picking this up and deciding about the author based on that evidence.

deciderFor an enjoyable introduction to my prolific author, I would recommend Decider.  Architect/Builder Lee Morris is an unusual Francis hero because he has not only an estranged (but resident) wife, but a cadre of six sons.  They feature heavily in the action as he is dragged into his late mother’s first husband’s family dispute over the fate of their racecourse.  The stakes are high as children are in peril, the characterizations are sharp and insightful, and there’s a fair bit of wisdom along with the perennial Britishness that started my career as an Anglophile so many years ago.

I’d like to recommend a few more as there are so many to love.  As a genre author he is prolific, and he’s repeated himself a few times, but there is a lot of great fun to be had on his shelf.

Comeback 1991–Veterinary Science fun!
Smokescreen 1972–Visit Apartheid era South Africa!
10lb Penalty 1997–British Political Thriller!
Bonecrack  1971–Organized crime and horses!
Twice Shy 1981–Marksmanship and two narrators!

In 2010, Dick Francis passed away (without meeting me!), and his son has continued to write in the style and genre established.  I have enjoyed these as well, and if you manage to devour the whole Francis oeuvre, enjoy his son’s writing as well.

© 2013, At Home With Books. All rights reserved.

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