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Remembering Dick Francis: royal jockey, bestselling mystery writer

February 16, 2010

Dick Francis

If Dick Francis had not suffered one of the more spectacular and inexplicable defeats in the history of sport, we probably wouldn’t be discussing him today. Francis, who died Sunday at age 89 in the Cayman Islands, turned his hand to writing mysteries because he did not want to be remembered as “the man who lost the Grand National” horse race.

That’s the story Francis told me in 1989, when he was still living in Florida, and it’s told again in the London Telegraph‘s excellent obituary.

One of England’s greatest post-war jockeys, Francis remade himself entirely as a writer of mysteries set in the world of jockeys and horse racing. Praised for their evocative detail, sometimes derided for formulaic writing, the books were enormously popular. His 42 novels have sold more than 60 million copies, earning some surprisingly high-brow admirers along the way.

In its also thorough obituary, the Washington Post recalls critic John Leonard’s famous and pithy remark, “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don’t like God.”

Francis was Britain’s top hunt jockey in 1956 when he rode the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Loch, in the Grand National. (Hunt racing, a form of steeplechase, is as popular in the U.K. as flat racing). He was far ahead, less than 50 yards from the finish line, when Devon Loch, though unhurt, suddenly collapsed, allowing another horse to win the race.

It was a bitter disappointment for Francis.

“If you cut me open,” Francis told me (and many others), “you will find the words ‘Devon Loch’ inscribed on my heart.”

Born in 1920 to a horse family, according to the London Times, Francis was the son and grandson of riders and horse traders.  His father “felt a day’s hunting or show-jumping was much more valuable” than attending class. Francis dropped out of school at 15.

In World War II Francis served in the RAF, flying combat missions in both fighter and bomber aircraft. During his nine-year career as a jockey, he won 345 times in 2,305 races. His 75 wins in the 1953-54 season made him England’s champion jockey, and he served as the Queen Mother’s No. 1 jockey four years in a row.

Devon Loch collapsing

Shortly after the disastrous Devon Loch race, Francis retired, unable at 37 to withstand the incessant injuries of his sport. He wrote an autobiography, The Sport of Queens, which led to a stint in racing journalism. But at the encouragement of his wife, Mary, he wrote his first mystery novel, Dead Cert, in 1962. It was a success, and he produced a book a year until Mary died in 2000.

Indeed, it was long whispered that Mary, who had the benefit of a university education, was the true author of Francis’ books. I heard the rumor when I met Francis in the late 1980s. In 1999, an unauthorized biography, Dick Francis: A Racing Life, by Graham Lord, made the charge public.

As the Telegraph reports, Francis and Mary never made a secret that the books were produced in close collaboration. Mary did all the research, and Francis frequently praised her contributions, once saying, “I wish Mary would let me put ‘By Dick and Mary Francis’ on the books.”

But husband and wife alike denied Lord’s allegation that Mary did all the writing, and had from the beginning. “Graham Lord is guessing and he has no hard facts,” Mary said, while Francis claimed he created the stories, writing them out in longhand for Mary to “read and edit.”

Based on my one meeting with Francis, I recall a trim, dapper man, jolly yet reserved, willing to talk about anything, including the Devon Loch debacle and questions of authorship.

Of all the obits and appreciations appearing this week, I recommend Jim Crace’s essay in the Guardian, recalling how the compulsive reading of Francis mysteries helped him navigate adolescence.

If you’re among Dick Francis’ millions of devoted readers, please share what you like best about his books, what you’ll miss most.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice permalink
    February 16, 2010 2:22 pm

    Not real familiar with Dick Francis, but I learned to appreciate the horse racing experience when I lived in Warrenton. It’s always good to know that sports figures are sometimes intelligent, creative, talented and complex. Thanks for an excellent report, Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 16, 2010 3:06 pm

      You’re welcome, ma’am. Francis is a deft genre writing, giving good entertainment value for the dollar. But, based on your previous comments, I doubt you’d find him to your taste. You ever knw.

  2. February 16, 2010 2:25 pm

    I had chance to meet him, too. Very nice man. We were the same height.

    Mostly, I remember being a horse-crazy pre-teen, and my mother handed me Nerve. It was off to the races from there. Before publishing became so world-wide, I’d pick up the English editions of his books in London, six months to a year before they appeared here in the States.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 16, 2010 3:07 pm

      Thanks, Nancy, that’s a nice story.

  3. rachel permalink
    February 16, 2010 2:29 pm

    I am not among his fans, I’ve never read him. However, I am impressed that a retired jockey could simply turn into an incredibly popular mystery author.

    Interesting that we are having another discussion of authorship and collaboration.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 16, 2010 3:14 pm

      Yes, these authorship questions go back to the Bible, and probably beyond. I imagine two guys, in the caves of Lascaux, arguing over whose hand print that is on the wall there, among the bison and horses and aurochs.

  4. Connie permalink
    February 16, 2010 5:09 pm

    I used to read Dick Francis for fun back before I had to read books for a living. I couldn’t care less about horses or horse racing, but somehow those books were entertaining to me anyway. Great escapism.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 17, 2010 2:15 am

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I could not care less about speed boats, sharks, madmen taking over the world or custom-made cigarettes and just the right cut of bespoke suits, but I always loved Ian Fleming…

  5. Tommy permalink
    February 17, 2010 12:48 am

    The fact that he is “the man who lost the Grand National” horse race will forever be apart of his story. But what a story! “Jockey of Queens” turned prolific and much-read mystery writer who lives to ripe old age of 89 succumbing to death on the Cayman Islands. He turned an event that could have ruined him into something magnificent. I will read at least one Dick Francis novel this year in memory of a life well lived.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 17, 2010 2:17 am

      His marriage to Mary was a love match, too — both sides of the family tried to keep them apart, on the grounds of what could this uneducated horse boy and this beautiful sophisticated young woman with the university degree possibly have in common. Mmm…anybody out there have any ideas?!?

  6. alexis permalink
    February 17, 2010 12:12 pm

    What an incredibly interesting guy. I also am not familiar with his work. However, thankfully, it’s not to late for me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 17, 2010 12:34 pm

      It’s never too late to find a fun new author, even if it’s actually a fun old author. While I’ve read only one book by Dick Francis (or his wife — ha!), don’t let the genre scare you off. When smart and sophisticated readers like John Leonard, John Crace and Connie Ogle speak up for a genre author, I’d say he’s worth a look.

  7. February 17, 2010 12:57 pm

    Cayman Islands. A great place to be. His writing made me fell like I was there. A part of what was happening. If there were parts you did not really care about, it seemed the other parts brought you and kept you in.

  8. charles h. gossel permalink
    May 6, 2011 3:22 pm

    dear sir,i am 81 years old and have read all my life.in 1962 i accidently picked up a book about horses and steeplechase riding.i was hooked i looked forward every year for a new book by dick francis.never missed a year. only one year did i not like the book and that year it wasn’t about horses.he was my favorite author for all those years and i justread them all again. he still is my favorite author C

  9. charles h. gossel permalink
    May 6, 2011 3:24 pm

    dear sir,i am 81 years old and have read all my life.in 1962 i accidently picked up a book about horses and steeplechase riding.i was hooked i looked forward every year for a new book by dick francis.never missed a year. only one year did i not like the book and that year it wasn’t about horses.he was my favorite author for all those years and i justread them all again. he still is my favorite author

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