Dick Francis became a more known quantity in American letters in the last decade or so – one saw his newest offerings on store shelves presented front and center quite often, and they became plumper over the years – but for my money, I’ve always admired and loved his earlier, shorter and tighter works, and have, over the last twenty years or so, picked up most of them. This is in spite of the fact that his name still raises an interrogative eyebrow in most cases when I bring it up: Dick who?
Francis is perhaps better known in Britain than here, and more among older folks than today’s ADD younger crowd. A former jockey – he went professional in 1948 and retired in 1957 – he won his share of races (350 of them), rode for the Queen Mother, and in the 1953/1954 season was Champion Jockey. He began writing immediately after his retirement, a non-fiction book called “The Sport of Queens” which led to him being given a post as a racing correspondent in the Sunday Express newspaper; his first thriller in a long line came in 1962, and he never stopped until his death in 2010 at the ripe old age of 90.
Unlike many prolific authors who try to vary their output, characters, and settings, in Francis’s work there is an aura of similarity about all his protagonists and their milieu, no matter where the stories are placed or what the crime is (for he is above all, a crime writer). Consider: his characters are almost always involved, peripherally or otherwise, with horses, and usually in racing. Just about every story I’ve read is written in the first person, by a nondescript, in-control individual who may or may not be an ex-jockey, is emotionally repressed but has a rich interior life and dreams, and who is brought out of his shell by a crime, a friend, or a woman as a romantic interest (or all of them). They are all brave, unassuming, sensible and above all, competent. If they were fatter, one might be forgiven for thinking that his heroes are modern-day hobbits.
If this sounds boring and “same” – come on, you might be saying, how often can anyone write about the ponies without getting lazy or repetitive? — well, you really need to go through a few of his books, because after a bit they kind of grow on you, like familiar vintages from different years, or new expressions of much-loved whiskies where just enough is tweaked to make it a whole new experience. Throughout the novels you get a sense of a genuine love for and knowledge about, horses. It’s more felt around the corners than seen head on, something sensed and perhaps smelled but never precisely articulated. It’s in small asides, like how horses are cared for, how punters behave, what bookmakers do, how owners and jockeys and Stewards interact. It’s a window into a different kind of profession entirely, as seen from the inside. The beauty about his early novels is how well they present this — not written by someone who has done his research, but by someone who has actually been in the business of equines. And look at how short and taut they are (much like a jockey, really): “Knock Down” (1974) is a concise 188 pages and so is “Smokescreen”, written three years earlier (neither of these is on my list of four to discuss, but I had them in front of me so it saved me getting up to check the others).
Of all these early novels, four stand out as my favourites: “Odds Against” (1965), “Flying Finish” (1966), “Blood Sport” (1967) and “Rat Race” (1970). Yes there are others – certainly there are others – but these are the ones I’ve picked. These are the ones I reread.
“Odds Against” introduced the ex-jockey turned private dick Sid Halley, who was to star in three subsequent novels. Possessing a crippled arm, a dead horse-racing career and no particular desire to do anything or get closer to anyone, Halley takes on a case in quintessential noir-fashion (Phillip Marlowe comes to mind, but not Sam Spade); and in the people he meets during his investigation, he learns to pick up the pieces of a broken life. While solving the case. (Of course he solves the case, come on).
I really loved “Flying Finish” (1966), which is about a poor nobleman appropriately named Henry Grey, who works in a transportation agency that ships horses around Europe. As the plot thickens and people disappear, Grey begins to understand that more is being shipped besides bloodstock. Also memorable for two top-notch villains, the low-key and capable mastermind, and a pitch-perfect homicidal assassin named Billy. And I can’t leave out the romantic interest, an Italian stewardess who smuggles contraceptive pills on the sly (don’t ask).
“Blood Sport” (1967) took the genre in a different direction by presenting us with suicidal spy-catcher Gene Hawkins (he sleeps with a Luger under his pillow), who is recruited by his boss to go find a missing racehorse in America. It starts out hardboiled but doesn’t stay that way, and while I liked the story, I was particularly moved by the brief and almost tender description of how Gene (in that quietly undemonstrative fashion so characteristic of Francis’s work) knows he loves his boss’s daughter, but also knows he is wrong for her and tries to gently push her away.
And I took great pleasure in the disgraced, divorced ex-airline pilot now flying small charter planes from horse-racing meet to horse-racing meet in “Rat Race” (1970). In spite of himself, Matt Shore makes friends with a champion jockey, gets involved with his sister and stumbles across a nefarious insurance scheme which nearly kills her and later, him. Like Halley, Matt learns to live again through opening up to others, which makes the quiet moments he has with Julian’s sister simple, unassuming and a pleasure to read.
That’s a quality I really like in the Dick Francis novels: that deadpan, clipped conversational style that teeters on the edge of, but never quite falls into, the rhythms of pulp fiction. It’s concise, it’s clear, and there’s no waste anywhere. Even the dialogue is like that:
“You’re bastard,” she said.
See what I mean? When a writer uses the bare minimum of words necessary to carry the plot and sort out the dialogue, you find yourself paying rather more attention than, say, to whole paragraphs of a Stephen King tome. Some may decry this terse, almost unemotional style and sigh about its similarity from one book to another – for me, however, it works. Oh admittedly, characterization is not always the best – the tough but damaged heroes and their dry mannerisms and taciturn speech have a way of wearing out their welcome after a while – and in a couple hundred pages you won’t get War & Peace, for sure.
You just have to think of these earlier, crisper novels as train fodder…something nourishing and gripping to read on a short train journey. Small, bite-sized horse McNuggets about mostly small, bite-sized men who get involved in criminal matters, are battered and thrown about a whole lot, but always manage to get back up and gamely battle on. There may not be a life lesson in that, but there’s sure a lot of fun.