Monday, February 15, 2010

RIP Dick Francis

By now, many of you will be aware of the sad news overnight (NZT) of the passing of bestselling British thriller writer Dick Francis. The man who made his authorial name with exciting tales set in his beloved ‘horse world’ was 89, and died at his home in the Cayman Islands. It’s the second recent passing of a giant of the crime and thriller genre, after we suffered the loss of Robert B. Parker earlier this year. At least, as they say in cricket-referencing Commonwealth countries, both Parker and Francis had “a good innings” (ie a long and full life).

Newspaper stories and tributes in response to jockey-turned-novelist Francis’s death are starting to flow freely around the world, including here in New Zealand.

Richard (Dick) Francis was born October 31, 1920, as the younger son of a horse breeder in Tenby, South Wales. During World War II he joined the Royal Air Force in 1940 and was stationed in the Egyptian desert before being commissioned as a bomber pilot in 1943, flying Spitfires, Wellingtons, and Lancasters.

A few years later he returned to his father's stables and became a steeplechase trainer's assistant. Later, as a professional jockey, he won 345 of the more than 2300 races he rode in between 1948 and 1957, taking the title of Champion Jockey for the 1953-54 season. Francis' first book, published in 1957, was his autobiography, titled THE SPORT OF QUEENS. His first novel, DEAD CERT, came out in 1962 and he has been prolific (almost a book a year) ever since.

He penned 42 novels, many of which featured horse racing as a theme. His books were translated into more than 20 languages, and in 2000 Queen Elizabeth II - whose mother was among his many avid readers - honoured Francis by making him a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). Francis also won three prestigious Edgar awards from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), for his novels FORFEIT (1968), WHIP HAND (1979), and COME TO GRIEF (1995).

He also was awarded a Cartier Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers' Association (CWA) for his outstanding contribution to the genre. He was made a Grand Master in 1996 for lifetime achievement.

In recent years Francis wrote novels jointly with son Felix, including SILKS (2008) and EVEN MONEY (2009). A new novel by the two, CROSSFIRE, will be published later this year. Just recently it was announced that one of Francis’s bestsellers were tipped to be adapted for film by a big new player in the British film market.

I must confess, embarrassingly, to having not yet read any of Dick Francis’s work, although I have heard some good things from several people who enjoy his writing. He was one of a number of longstanding authors, important within the genre, that I have been meaning to get around to at some point (including the likes of Tony Hillerman, Joseph Wambaugh, Sarah Paretsky, Robert B. Parker, Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald, etc). His was a remarkable life; excelling in two such divergent careers, and bringing joy to many.

I am providing some links to various tributes to, and other related articles on, Dick Francis and his career, below.

Racing Post article
Telegraph article
Have you read Dick Francis? If so, what is your favourite of his books? Did you ever meet him at a literary festival? Please feel to share any thoughts or comments.


  1. I'm pretty sure I have read every one of Francis' novels (I own all but three) and I've read most of them multiple times. When I was growing up the librarian at out local library was wary of mysteries but she made an exception for Francis so I was introduced to him early and have always maintained a fondness for the books. Although most are standalone novels they do follow a formula and so have the same kind of comfort as favourite series do. The heroes of the books are always principled men who do the right thing despite the odds and there's precious little of that in the real world sometimes so it's nice to know where to find that kind of thing when you need it.

    The books are always wonderfully researched and his heroes have had a most interesting array of careers. One of my favourite books is LONGSHOT because the protagonist in that one is a writer of travel survival guides and at one time I thought that sounded like the perfect job. Another of my favourites is STRAIGHT in which a jockey inherits his brother's jem buying business and it's full of fascinating details about a subject I knew little about.

    I've certainly spent many happy hours reading Dick Francis novels over the years and am sad at the thought there won't be any more (though I still haven't read the last book he released with his son as co-author so I've got one last book to look forward to).

  2. I have to confess to not having read any of his books. He was always on my 'I must read some day' list, but I haven't managed it yet. Longshot sounds good, Bernadette.