For Dick Francis fans a nice early Christmas treat with the late author featured on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Great Lives’. Broadcast on 4 December the half hour programme hosted by The Times journalist Matthew Parris invited guests to tell us why Dick had made this hall of fame.
This programme is about people that are interesting and have outstanding achievements. Jumping into his stride Parris said that Francis succeeded magnificently in two professions – as jump jockey and author – yet the two could be traced back to one event – the fateful ride on Devon Loch at Aintree in 1956. The horse stumbled on the run-in when riding for the Queen Mother in the popular annual long distance race the Grand National; the notoriety made Francis a well known name in public life. It was the manner in which had accepted his fate, with grace and modesty, on that day and since, that made him an inspirational figure. After retiring as jockey and the publication of his autobiography he took to writing adventure mystery thrillers. In many of them the story is about an unassuming but honest and courageous hero. Estimates vary on how many books Francis sold but the figure mentioned in the programme was in excess of 60 million. He is the only receipt-ant of the Mystery Writers’ of America Edgar on three occasions.
One of insights that was mentioned was that Dick found it hard to get a start in life. During the Second World War after joining the RAF he was posted to non-flying duties; yet he persisted with his ambition to fly with more than twenty requests to become a trainee. After the war he also found he had to wait his turn to get a decent ride as a jockey, but when the chance came he proved his ability; but by then he was 25 in his first race against a professional; he was 32 when he became champion jockey. National Hunt racing being a hazardous sport he had his share of injuries, and it was asserted that it was common for riders to be out of the game for periods. If nothing else, Francis was a determined survivor.
The latter half of the programme explored Dick Francis the thriller writer and the question of whether Francis was the author of the annual bestsellers – and to what extent his wife Mary either wrote them or cooperated. The controversial theory had that almost solely Mary’s work had been put by his biographer Graham Lord. He was interviewed and he claimed that Mary told him that she wrote the books and knew that they were best marketed under her husband’s name. He also says that it was an open secret in literary circles. Jonathan Powell, racing correspondent for the ‘Mail on Sunday’ took a different view, and indeed the one widely held by many of us in the crime fiction community. It was certainly true that Dick and Mary were a team, discussing the various plots and characters together. And one most not forget that Dick was a racing correspondent himself for many years. The son Felix also mentions that Mary honed the prose.
Listeners were reminded that after Mary died Dick did not feel able to write. That is until his son Felix persuaded him to work together. Felix is still adding to the Dick Francis brand.
The inclusion of Dick Francis in the Great Lives commemorative series is very welcome. However, Matthew Parris said that he is not a fan and my main criticism is that too much of the time was taken up with the Graham Lord controversy. Surely, the researchers should have had the wit to contact either the Crime Writers’ Association, the Detection Club or even the Mystery Writers’ of America for a speaker on his massive achievements. For many years the late writer and critic Harry Keating was one of Dick’s best advocates; but others such as Simon Brett and Margaret Yorke are also well able to communicate to the public about the huge appeal of the books. Because this was not addressed we had no explanation as to why the extensive catalogue of books still have a world wide following or how the Francis brand was rejuvenated in the 80s and 90s.
Readers may be interested in our own book on Dick Francis aimed at exploring these questions. In 2005 we approached Dick as asked if we could produce a collectors volume about his work. Masters of Crime contains a mock interview with Francis by H R F Keating, an overview of the Francis books in the context of the development of adventure hero, and an annotated bibliography. It is available as a handsomely bound and illustrated signed limited edition or as a paperback. During the 1990s Scorpion Press also published three Dick Francis novels as signed limited editions. The only one still available is Second Wind.
Dick Francis died in February 2010 aged 89. He is greatly missed.