For those of you who enjoy a good mystery, sometimes set in exotic locales such as South Africa, Russia or Norway, and all connected somehow to the world of jockeys and horse, I have sad news for you. The leader of this genre, author Dick Francis, died a few days ago at age 89, after entertaining his way through more than 40 novels.
Raised in southwest Wales, Francis learned to ride when he was 5 and won his first race at 8. He dropped out of school and began racing for a living at age 15. After a stint in the Royal Air Force, he married his beloved Mary, a university-educated literate schoolmistress, arriving at their wedding with his arm in a sling after a fall from a horse. Little did he know then that everything that happened to him would be fertile ground for his novels in the future.
After turning pro, Francis was Queen Elizabeth’s number 1 jockey for four seasons in the 1950’s, until he broke so many bones he was advised to give up racing. Out of work, he wrote his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, and for the next 16 years made his living as Britain’s Sunday Express racing correspondent. It was Mary who encouraged him to try his hand at a novel. He drew on his jockey experience and wrote Dead Cert.
It was so well received, he wrote a book a year after that. Horses feature in all of the novels, as well as injured jockeys, lonely or divorced men whose valiant efforts to pursue villains, especially those involved with the racing world, kept the books fast-paced. When they not set at one of the UK’s champion racetracks, Francis takes his protagonist to one of those exotic locales.
I came to Dick Francis novels later in my reading life, thinking a mystery about jockeys would not interest me. I was so wrong. Once I’d discovered him, I read all of Francis’ back list and then each new one as it was published. Wife Mary became her husband’s research person, often learning the specialized fields that overlapped the ‘horse’ story. She learned to paint for In the Frame and about wines for Proof. For the novel Flying Finish she learned to fly and loved it so much she kept up her pilot’s license. After Mary’s death in 2000, their son Felix helped his father produce the novels.
If you’re looking for a new old writer to explore, with enough books to keep you busy, try one from a master: