So I’ve been thinking about a new series for here and the comments in the last post about Dick Francis decided it: I’m going to do every-now-and-then posts about my re-reads, one author per post, starting with the Dick Francis post I took down because it was a draft. Basically, it’ll be a paragraph about why I love these authors, whatever other info I have about their lives and writing, and then a Top Five Re-Reads with annotations. That’ll be fun for me and the comments should be interesting since we can talk about one author in depth. Some of my other re-reads will probably be Pratchett, Gilbert, Heyer, Allingham, Christie, Stout, Wells (although only her Murderbots, so maybe not), Aaronovitch and . . . well, there are a lot. REALLY looking forward to the conversations in the comments.
And now, Dick Francis.
Dick Francis is a comfort read for me even though he writes some pretty violent stories. Francis writes a world of honest men driven to risk their lives, often by racing horses, who find their lives in even more danger because of insanely evil men who need to destroy them. This is not my genre. And yet, Francis will forever be one of my favorite writers. The moral underpinnings of his work are so strong, his English settings so vivid, his low-key protagonists so skilled that I go back to them again and again. He gets you first with outrage–these are such good people, why is somebody doing these lousy things to them?–and holds you with competence porn and decency. His worlds are bound by justice and retribution, his heroes sadder but wiser, his books reassuring in a chaotic world: Good will always prevail in a Dick Francis story. Also he could write really, really well. (I tried a couple written with or by his son, Felix, and something’s missing in them, but that may be just me.) There are a few that I can’t reread because of personal issues (well, he wrote over forty books, he was bound to hit some sore spots), but they’re all very well-written first person narratives. I don’t think he ever wrote a bad book.
One of the reasons, I think, is that he wrote from experience and did exhaustive research. His books about flying came from both his experience as a WWII pilot (and from his wife Mary’s extensive experience as a pilot). After the RAF he became a champion jockey, winning over 350 races, many as Queen Elizabeth’s jockey. When he retired, he wrote his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, and became a sports journalist, a job he kept for sixteen years. Then in 1962 published his first novel, Dead Cert. He was 42.
I keep going back to that. RAF pilot, champion jockey to the Queen, serious journalist, all before he was 42. I mean, I started writing at 41, and all I have to show for the previous four decades is a lot of teaching. At least I now understand why his heroes are all competence porn made flesh. And then there’s this bit from Wikipedia: “He regularly produced a novel a year for the next 38 years, missing only 1998 (during which he published a short-story collection).” Show-off. Not only that, he wrote them from January to May. That’s five months. He had to have them done by May because that’s when his publisher came to get them. I had to lie down for awhile at that point overwhelmed by jealousy and shame.
Francis did have help: his wife Mary did all the research, among other things becoming a pilot for Flying Finish and starting her own air taxi service for Rat Race, and learning photography for Reflex. Francis said he would have been happy to have her name on the covers of their books. She must have been an amazing woman. They both said it was love at first sight, which I think explains why so many of his subplot romances are so quick; he was drawing on experience again.
My first Francis was High Stakes, about a rich toy designer, great at Rube-Goldberg-like interlocking toys, who owns racehorses but doesn’t know much about them; when he finds out he’s being cheated, the cheaters try to ruin him, and he defeats them with an ingenious plan of interlocking parts, just like the toys he designs. There’s a nice subtle romantic subplot, but the main plot is the classic Francis Good Honest Man against Greed and Evil, with excellent comeuppance at the end and justice for all. It was a great start to a decades long Francis Re-Read.
My Top Five Francis Re-Reads (in alphabetical order):
Ian Pembroke, champion jockey, is the son of a multi-millionaire who disowned him when he pointed out that the woman he was about to take as his fifth wife was a mistake. The marriage turned out badly alienating even more the eight now grown children of Malcolm Pembroke’s five wives. So it’s a surprise when Malcolm calls his son out of the blue because he needs somebody beside him he can trust, and disowned or not, he trusts Ian. The problem? Somebody’s trying to kill him. As Ian navigates some savage family jealousies and thwarts more attempts on Malcolm’s life, he gets to know his father as an adult and reaches out to the rest of his family to try to the heal the breaches caused by past betrayals, real and imagined, before the killer can take Malcolm out. It’s a book about how families fragment and heal, populated by vivid characters, and just enough racing that you know it’s a Francis.
Benedict Juliard is just seventeen when his distant but caring father calls him to help him win a political seat, a seat that a bad guy does not want him to win. The book covers a lot of time–ten years?–during which the threats to Ben and his father ebb and flow as Ben grows up. The political details in this are light but interesting, the characters vivid, but I think I just like the father/son relationship here, and I really like Ben’s character arc from schoolboy to skilled professional who’s nobody to mess with.
Break-In and Bolt
In Break-In, Kit Fielding was raised to love horses and hate Allerdecks, a family rivalry that makes the Montagues and Capulets look like buddies. Now Kit’s grown up and a champion jockey, and his twin sister Holly has married Bobby Allerdeck, all three of them rejecting the feud to the disgust of both families. But that kind of hatred has deep roots; somebody’s trying to ruin Bobby and Holly, and Kit goes to help while still riding horses for his favorite owner, a princess with a niece named Danielle he’d like to know better.
In Bolt, Kit and Danielle are engaged, but something’s gone very wrong, and Kit doesn’t know what it is, While he’s trying not to lose the woman he loves, the princess and her husband are targeted by a cruel and greedy classis Francis villain, and Kit pitches in again to save the people he cares about.
I think the fact that Kit is such a smart guy coupled with his deep love for the people around him, puts his books on this list, but it doesn’t hurt that the plots are nicely twisted and that Danielle is an equally smart capable character with a demanding job she does very well. Yes, I know this is two books, but they’re about the same guy and Bolt finishes what Break-In couldn’t, that stupid family feud.
Tor Kelsey is part of racing security, the eyes of the guy in charge, who is sent to Canada when one of British racing’s most dangerous crooks buys his way onto a special racing cross-country train event that includes the cream of Canadian race horse owners, with a staged mystery as part of the entertainment. Tor’s a great character: he’s independently wealthy but he wants to work, he sees so much because he fades into the background, he pretty much likes everybody he meets, especially Nell, the woman in charge of the special trip. That romance is as understated as all of Francis’s subplots, but it’s more fun because they’re all stuck on the train together, Tor has to maintain his undercover identity, and Nell is busy every moment, so he has to be fast on his feet to make a connection before the train finishes crossing Canada. It always feels like the lightest of Francis’s mysteries to me; people still die but they’re all people we could spare, and the restricted setting of the train and the varied cast of characters (especially the actors in the mystery bit) mean this one is just fun.
Andrew Douglas is a hostage negotiator with fifteen rescues under his belt when he’s called in to help recover top female jockey, Alessia Cenci. When things go horribly wrong at the ransom drop because the police don’t follow his orders, Andrew works overtime to find her and bring her home, which would be the end of the story for a lesser writer. Instead, Alessia needs help getting her nerve back, and Andrew is good at that, too, working to help her back to racing while being called into two more kidnappings, done by the same Big Bad who took Alessia. It’s a puzzle book, Andrew putting together clues to find the mastermind’s identity against the backdrop of negotiating the return of the new kidnap victims while dealing with the understandable insanity of those whose loved ones have been taken. Like all Francis heroes, Andrew is clever, kind, skilled, and determined to put the bad guy away.
But I could seriously have done ten or twelve top titles, Francis is just that good. I’m thinking Twice Shy, Rat Race, Decider, Straight . . . okay, Francis readers, tell me in the comments the ones I should have mentioned.