Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Look Back

Dick Francis, British jockey-turned-author, died on February 14, 2010, at the age of 89. Although I already owned 40 of his books, I was sorry that no new ones would be forthcoming, so I was delighted to find a back issue I hadn't previously read at the VNSA book sale on the day before the first anniversary of his death.

My late husband Tom had met Dick Francis at a book signing about 10 years ago and said that he was a very small person and seemed extremely shy. I expected small, but I was a little incredulous about the shyness. Francis had been a fighter and bomber pilot in WWII as well as a steeplechase jockey, so his bravery in the face of physical danger was unquestioned; maybe he just wasn't easy around other people, although his former position as jockey for the Queen Mother's horses indicates he had at least some social skills.

Francis took up writing after injuries forced his retirement from racing. The plot of the average Francis novel is fairly predictable: the intrepid hero (usually tangentially involved with horses and always speaking in first person) stumbles across a mystery that others are desperate to conceal. Despite personal and professional problems and at least one obligatory scene in which he is physically menaced or tortured by the bad guys, he eventually solves the mystery and frequently ends up cementing a relationship with an attractive woman he's managed to meet and woo during the quieter passages of the book.

You may be wondering, if the books are so predictable, why I own so many. The thing that makes the novels more than formulaic - and that made him the only three-time winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar award for Best Novel - is the research behind them, much of it done by his wife Mary and his son Felix. Are you interested in photography as a profession?  Read all about it in Reflex, possibly my favorite Francis novel.  Don't understand how merchant banking works?  Try Banker.  Want to know the ins and outs of life as a glassblower? Check out Shattered.  I enjoy being immersed in the details of a strange new world every time I pick up a Dick Francis mystery, and even though the general shape of the plot is familiar, I very rarely can predict all its interesting twists and turns.

I also like the typical Francis hero - a pretty modest, average-appearing guy who exhibits wit and strength under pressure.  In fact, I think this is the person Tom expected to meet at that book signing and probably did without knowing it.  After all, the typical Francis hero is unassuming on the outside; the brains and bravery are invisible until a crisis calls them forth.

"The world has lost a champion on the racetrack, in the air in defense of freedom, and on the page in defense of intelligence, honesty, and decency. RIP Dick Francis. Your race is run, and you done good." ~Larry Thornberry, from his obituary for Dick Francis in The American Spectator

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