Remembering Dick Francis: royal jockey, bestselling mystery writer
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.
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.