Argh Re-Reads: Dick Francis

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):

Hot Money
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.

Ten-Pound Penalty
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.

The Edge
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.

The Danger
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.

52 thoughts on “Argh Re-Reads: Dick Francis

  1. I absolutely love Dick Francis’s books. My favourite is “Reflex” which might have been the second I’ve read. I simply love Philip, the jockey-hero.
    Strangely enough I got attracted to them via a cover of the – back then – latest book, the German edition of “Straight”, cover design by Tomi Ungerer.

    I always treasured that his heroes are calm and “stoic”, silently competent in what they do. And they defy the concept of the typical alpha heroes.
    As a reader I always came away with a ton of new knowledge, which was never delivered via info dump but intricately woven into the story as means to solving the case. His writing is spare, with no unncessary frills – exactly like his heroes.

    Some years ago I tried one of the novels he had written with his son which might have been penned mainly by the son. It had all the markings of a true Francis (stoic hero, down to earth mystery, horses), but it lacked soul. I can’t remember now what it was, but I know that it was something specific that I didn’t like and have kept away since.

    What did I read this week?
    I finally finished Masquerade in Lodi – don’t know what took me so long: it was lovely as always. Penric falls into the same category as the Francis heroes – silently competent, stoic and simply very likeable.
    Also finished Widdershins by Jorden L. Hawk (got tempted to read it thanks to last week’s Good Book recommendations), enjoyable read though I could have done with less sexy stuff.
    Now I’m back to reading Something Human.

    Was otherwise distracted by an interesting series on youtube (Absolute History): Apparently as part of a longer series they showed three families living as their ancestors would have lived in the 19th century (the 1910s, 20s, during the Blitz). Sadly I couldn’t find any uploads of the 1960s and 70s episodes, so at least got some hours of sleep. I can get very submersed…

    Also followed up my intention to read a chapter or more of “Männer” and dipped into “Contageous diseases” by Mary Dobson. Of course I had to read the chapter about SARS and MERS, the horrific impact very cushioned by living through the predicted follow-up pandemic 🙁 The chapter on Scurvy was quite interesting, too.

    And I did a lot of reading and listening for the Yale course on happiness.

  2. I agree Francis is compulsively readable. Competence porn. Characters with strong moral fiber. Clever and exciting plots. I never get bored. I don’t know that I have favorite books of his; I reread them all. But I do have certain parts in certain books that I skim or skip over because they’re too grim for me to re-read. Doesn’t detract from how good the books are overall. I may need to start a re-read very soon.

  3. Hot Money is my absolute favourite Francis – the tangled family feelings feel familiar. I also like to re-read Straight, for the gadgets, and June in the office.

  4. I have never read a Dick Francis. I am not sure why as it’s clear I would like them very much.
    All the recs are now going on my ever expanding TBR list.
    I love the idea of this series of posts. What a brilliant idea. Thanks Jenny.

  5. I’m overwhelmed with envy and shame too.

    But then, I bet he had a really supportive home life where all he had to do was focus on writing. So, I will commit to finding my balance.

  6. It’s a great idea for a new series!!

    Must check my collection for my top 5 (with Reflex being nr. 1), as I haven’t reread them in a while. Also, have to check their original titles.
    Sidenlte: The DF novels are great when as a non-English speaking reader you want to give it a try reading the originals. Not too overwhelming in volume and compelling enough to keep on reading till the end.

    1. Now I’m sitting among the 16 books from my shelves (I’d loaned many more from the libeary) and feel the urge to reread most of them…

      My favourites (my book brain tells me so though I can’t remember why exactly):
      1 Reflex (Philip Nore) – Jenny has made me aware why I love him so dearly
      2 Whip Hand (Sid Halley, plus book 1 about him – Odds Against, book 3 – Good grief; I’ve seen there’s another one with Sid, but haven’t read is) – Sid not only has to deal with a sadistic villain but with his fears (concerning his one remaining hand): he’s persistent and tough yet vulnerable
      3 To the hilt (Alex Kinloch) – he’s a Scot, an artist, a musician and he can ride!
      4 For Kicks (Daniel Roke) – Aussie race horse breeder sleuthing undercover, very 60s feel to it.

      And one book – which I don’t seem to own and can’t remember the title – about an amateur jockey who after he wins an important race ends up kidnapped.

      Dear husband after I told him of today’s topic, immediately grabbed Proof, his favourite and has disappeared…

      It’s interesting how deeply rooted they are in their time and simultaneously not dated. But they can be fascinating as time travel vehicles – like the one about a physics teachter whose clue to a racing scandal is a music cassette on which computer data was stored…

      1. I’m not sure I could explain the concept of a program on a cassette to some younger people. My grandkids have problems with the concept of CDs. They think everything is streaming or download.

        1. Actually, the book is so old that the computer expert Francis’s hero finds explains it all to him; the hero is a physics teacher who’s also an Olympic level rifle expert. It’s not essential to know anything more than the Macguffin computer program can be swapped around on cassettes.

      2. The amateur jockey hero who gets kidnapped may be Risk. He’s also an accountant and he’s rescued by an older woman teacher (not the love interest) if that helps jog your memory.

      3. The kidnapped-amateur-jockey book is Risk, about an accountant who’s uncovered a complex financial fraud involving racing baddies. 🙂 It’s got a very atypical ‘romance.’

  7. Oh, now I have to rake a week off to re-read all my DF novels! I think I bought my first one at an airport, having no idea who he was but not wanting to miss out on a chance to buy an English novel – which obviously was way before it was so easy to get them via Amazon. I started reading on the plane and was hooked.

    Interestingly, the same thing happened to me with one of Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels – but in this case, I was bored after the ninth instalment or so because as funny as they are, there is no character development. Whereas Francis always managed to come up with new people and new twists. It might have become a similar problem if he had tried to stick to one hero, though.

    1. You were more persistent with Evanovich than I was. I lost interest while reading nr. 6, dnf and never picked up any book again.
      Yep, they were funny, but that doesn’t keep me hooked.

    2. DF rarely revisited his heroes, only Sid Halley comes to mind. The first about him was written in the mid-60s, one in the late 70s, the third in the mid 90s (and one apparently in the early 2000s). Sid remains young and recognizable, but does get a journey).

      1. Kit Fielding in Break In and Bolt.
        I think the fourth Sid Halley book was written by his son, Felix.

  8. I too love Dick Francis. I actually used a quote from one of his books in my dissertation (I had 2-3 quotes from literature, philosophy or mathematics heading up each chapter — btw, also had one from Terry Pritchett in there too!).

    Even though I generally dislike movies and books with violence in them (and he has plenty in some of his books), there was always that something special, that je ne sais quoi about the protagonist that kept me hooked.

    Guess I’ll have to go down and pull one off the shelf now, haven’t re-read any of his for a number of years…

    1. Off topic, but I am so glad to hear about someone who keeps physical books on physical shelves. Made me happy to read. 🙂

  9. Break in, with Kit Fielding, was my introduction to Dick Francis and the Break in / Bolt duo remain a firm favorite.
    All four Sid Halley books are good too.

    I like the two older ones where the hero is a pilot, Flying finish and Rat race, and Second Wind, the newer one with the hurricane flyer.

    Straight, Forfeit, Banker, Enquiry, Nerve, In the frame, Proof, Comeback, To the hilt, Decider, 10 lb Penalty, The danger, Long shot, Smoke screen, Shattered – I like all his newer books a lot, and most of the okder ones too!
    I feel like I need to go on a rereading spree now that I’ve brought them to mind.

    I like that once he branched out from jockeys as protagonists, he really made all the other jobs he gave his heroes interesting too – I always learned something, about all these very different sorts of work people do, along with the suspense and satisfaction of the story itself. At first the heroes’ jobs are still closely related to racing, but gradually the field widens; even if they often still have some connection with horseracing, like the glassblower making a trophy for a horse race, or the accountant who is an amateur jockey and gets kidnapped, as Dodo mentions, in Risk.
    I think that helped to keep the stories fresh, there’s always some new and interesting background to explore.
    I think we can thank his wife’s research for that 🙂

    I don’t like Reflex or The Edge as much as others here do. Maybe because I first read them in a Dutch translation instead of in English, and the books really lost something in those translations, plus I really dislike the original photographer in Reflex.
    Maybe I’ll start the rereading with The Edge, see if I like it better now I’ve forgotten the Dutch translation.

    Proof has a few bits that really struck me as horrible, but is very good – I don’t know why the incident with the tent at the start, and the plaster of Paris later on, hit me harder than other things he’s written, but somehow they did. Maybe because I was taking first aid courses at the time? Still well worth rereading, anyway.

    The one book of his that I haven’t reread is the one with the depressed protagonist, Blood sport, as I found that one too depressing.

    After the first, I did not continue with those written by his son. Those just become ordinary thrillers and lose the sense of heart, caring for family, honesty, intelligence and decisiveness, fairness, integrity of the hero – I don’t quite know how to put it, but they definitely lost something important.

    1. The quality of translations is so important. Diogenes, DF’s “German” publisher, got very good translators. Caught the style just fine.

    2. I think they hit hard because of how they intersect with his grief and how Francis makes us experience that theory the protagonist’s view.

      In the first case, his detachment is awful and the situation and the descriptions so clinical that it’s somehow especially horrifying. Contrast with… Gerald? (Can’t remember his name, but one who finds Tony and launches the whole thing) and his different type of detachment.

      And the plaster of paris (still gives me shudders) because Tony is suddenly awake, the detachment shredded, and desperate to survive, and the descriptions are so vivid. It’s the complete counterpoint.

      I’d not thought about it, but reading this after I posted my comment below, the lightbulb came on for me. Francis wrote desperation in first person staggeringly, horrifyingly well. I will never, ever forget Sid and his hand.

    3. I liked Blood Sport, which somebody else also mentioned not liking because of the depression. The character arced, and I like the way he dealt with everything so calmly while everybody around him was losing it. It’s that competence porn thing again.

      The only one I can’t reread is the journalist with the wife in the iron lung (or something). Still terrific writing, of course. I had a hard time with Proof, too, because of the grief, which just shows how good a writer Francis was.

      1. The one with the wife in the iron lung bothered me too. I’m not sure I’ve reread it as often as I did the others. Proof fascinated me because of the wine merchant aspect.

  10. The Edge was the first Dick Francis novel I read. I was at a boring party and found it on a bookshelf, I was two thirds through it by the time my friends were ready to go. I always loved how well researched they were so I felt like I came away with a fun adventure and some knowledge.

    They are also somewhat safe books in that I know by the end, good will usually triumph and wrongdoer will be stopped, though some truly awful stuff happens in the meantime.

    I am amazed at how bad the movie adaptations are.

    My Favorites, though it is a bit like choosing my favorite puppy.

    1. The Edge- I have wanted to take a train trip across Canada ever since.
    2. Proof
    3. Hot Money
    4. Decider with the architect I would like to hire and I would love to have his house. As a side note, it is really hard to hire an architect. There are so many variables. I need an extension on my house and I had no idea it would be so complicated.
    5. Straight which has one of the best opening lines.

  11. As usual I get easily sidetracked and went from looking up DF’s books from the library to trying to find his autobiography, the Sport of Queens. There are only two copies in all of the South Shore of MA. Mystery novels on horseracing never really interested me, and always bypassed them, I should have looked further into it. Here is where I got sidetracked. I remember watching The Crown and there was a story line about a PR person who was bounced from his job and went on to become a famous novelist. Do you think I could remember his name? Couldn’t have been him. I even googled the series and went into the episodes to try and locate it. Nada! But at least I’ll be getting the autobiography.

  12. So many books, so little time. But thank you for reminding me how much I’ve always enjoyed Dick Francis’s books.

    Is it possible to pick favorites? Yes. But the list is so long it might be quicker to list the less-than-favorites and no. More fun to remember the faves. The ones I go back to most often are the Sid Halley books. I was shocked to discover there is a fourth one that I hadn’t read… but I also bailed on the Dick/Felix books after the second one so I missed it. Is it worth the effort?

    I totally agree with all the comments about what’s good in these books. I’ve always been impressed by his research. And by his writing. And by his heroes. And I should stop now and go fix breakfast.

    1. The 5th Sid Halley is Refusal and it’s written by Felix. I just got it out of the library and very nearly bailed on it, because it was more than 10% through the book before something really happened. Well, there’s a murder, but the first 10% of the book is catching up on Sid’s life now plus Sid telling himself it was a suicide and dithering about whether to come out of retirement and investigate it.

      Now that something’s actually happened, I might keep reading.

  13. Right…. competence porn and decency. Who could ask for more?

    I used to read Dick Francis’s books way way back, and enjoyed them. I guess I moved on to other things, so now, yeah, I think there’s a deep well I can go back and dip into.

    Speaking of time travel, here’s an exciting trip back to the Grand National of 1956. Keep your eye on Devon Loch and his jockey.

    1. Yes that was exciting! Also terrifying as jockeys hit the ground with how many tons of horses flying–or possibly landing–on top of them? (I think I remember that image from one of Francis’s books.) And LOL sanguine too–coming up to jump four the excellent race caller (not sure what his official job name is) says: “and still not many casualties.” What??

  14. I need to revisit Dick Francis. I read all of his books as a teen, alongside westerns by Louis L’Amour and every Travis McGee mystery (I’m still mad at Florida for removing the literary landmark where the Busted Flush would’ve been moored).

    1. I loved John D. MacDonald/Travis McGee back in the day. Gotta check him out again and see if he has aged well. This brings Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm to mind, about whom I have the same question.

        1. Huh. I knew they had moved it from its original 1987 location, but I thought the 2004 repositioning was permanent. It looked pretty solid in 2016 or 2017 when I went to visit.

  15. I must have picked up the first one very early on, because there were maybe three on the library shelf; Nerve, For Kicks and Flying Colors. I think Flying Colors was the first I read, and instantly scooped the rest, and I kept on because I was a horse mad teenager, and he kept me company for 40 years. Yikes.

    I have liked Banker best, for the banker himself, and the way he addresses the mystery, the stallion, the romance that waits… so many parts of it really spoke to me. Every other one is second or third, with exceptions I can’t remember. I remember loving Reflex and High Stakes, what I think of as the puzzle books, and the train across Canada which is exactly as delightful as Christie’s Orient Express.

    Having a mad thing for horses felt like it helped add dimension to a lot of the track things, even though I was timid rider and did not in fact EVER want to go that fast, generally. His precision with getting details correct about horse related things gave me enormous faith in the fundamental correctness of all the other details.

  16. I don’t remember the first one of his I read, my father bought them and I started reading them because of the horses. I kept reading them for the stories, and because I always learnt something new. I remember a flight from London to Melbourne in the late 80’s reading 4 new DF’s that I’d bought in London back to back – much easier to find his books in London!

    I haven’t re-read them for a while, which I’m about to change, it will be interesting to see what my impressions are after so long.

    One of my favourites not listed so far was Longshot, probably because of what I learnt about survival, but also because of the interrelationships of all the characters. John Kendall is a soon to be published – but almost starving nonetheless – writer, who takes on the job of writing a horse trainer’s memoir and then gets mixed up in the trainer’s family dynamics.

  17. There are so many good ones. I don’t think I can pick favorites but there are some that come more readily to mind.
    I loved Banker, partly because of the cartoonist he funds who then comes back and needs much more money and the hero panics because he hasn’t commented to more money and then it turns out the cartoonist has gotten tons of contracts and is an excellent investment. Partly because of the sheer decency of the romance—he’s in love with a colleagues wife and she with him but they won’t commit adultery or behave badly—they both like the husband.

    I can’t recall which one has the hero being rescued from drowning by a school
    Headmistress who asks him to introduce her to sex because she needs to know what her students are getting into.

    And I will always remember the hero in Proof whose romance is with his dead wife who died of an aneurism during pregnancy and by the end of the book has come to terms with her death.

    His mysteries were really well plotted but so were his human relationships.

    1. Debbie, that’s one of my favorite aspects of Proof. His grief is handled so beautifully, and the change as he moves into acceptance captured so subtly in the writing. And the sense of people orbiting around him that can’t get through the detachment. I picked it up for a re-read shortly after my mom died, and had to put it back down for a couple of years.

      Plus, Scotch. Fascinating about the Japanese (at that point) importing almost entirely on GC. And the water source. I learned so much.

  18. What a treat! I love almost all of them. Proof, about Tony the wine merchant, is my favorite, to the extent I can pick, neck and neck with Straight. When I was younger, The Edge was top, and still one I like.

    I do love almost all of them (I didn’t read the ones with/by his son), but those are the ones I most frequently reach for. There’s definitely a transition between the early books, like Whip Hand and Reflex, and the later ones with their broader perspective. I tend to prefer the latter.

    My father once said that he loved the Dick Francis books because he felt he’d been to the places described. In his understated way, Dick Francis was incredibly vivid. I always feel that I’ve learned a ton about a new area, a sense of shared competence. And I trust the knowledge. Interesting that his wife did so much of the research for that.

    My father inevitably will call (now text) me from dinners with new people to say “the one that starts “I inherited my brother’s mistress, brother’s house, my brother’s company. I inherited my brother’s life, and it almost killed me.” which one is that?” (Straight, I believe)

    Because of how you framed the topic, Jenny, I just noticed that in both Straight and Proof, the romance story is one of loss and grief. Not something I’d noticed before. Huh.

  19. The first Dick Francis I ever read was Bolt, which I loved and went back and read Break-In. The combination make my top 5 list.

    Which is:

    Hot Money

    Oddly enough, before I left for college my parents would often have Dick Francis books they had checked out of the library around. Mysteries about horse racing didn’t sound all that interesting to me then, though I read lots of other mysteries. I didn’t start reading them myself until I was working in bookstore in my mid 20’s.

  20. Does anyone remember Readers Digest Condensed Books? My parents subscribed to that, and the first Dick Francis I read was “In the Frame” (mostly set in Australia). Then, in high school, I helped tutor a friend, and he gave me a box set with “Dead Cert,” “Odds Against” and “High Stakes” (this was in the early 80’s). I was hooked.

    His new book always came out in the fall, and as my birthday is at the end of October, it became tradition for my parents to buy me the newest hardcover each year (they used to buy it early and read it before they gave it to me, careful not to crack the spine. It was years before they admitted that to me LOL!). I have from “Hot Money” to “Under Orders” in that format, and all the rest in paperback. I also have a the first four written with his son, but they certainly lack something.

    The books written after Mary died were already starting to get weaker. There were rumours she may even have done a good share of the writing, too. It would be sad to think she didn’t get recognition, so I hope that’s not true.

    But regardless, his books are truly outstanding. He reminds me of Robert B. Parker. Not a wasted word, but still vivid descriptions and gut-wrenching plots.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Edge” because it is set in Canada. But my top re-reads are “High Stakes” and the Sid Halley books (first three only).

    1. I think a lot of people knew that Mary was part of it because he was very up front about it. I remember a lot of people saying the books got weaker after she died, so it was common knowledge.

      1. He said he would have happily put her name on the cover but she didn’t want it there.

  21. I love Dick Francis. I own every book he ever wrote except his autobiography. Some of them are paperbacks that are literally falling apart because I used to read them so often. My grandmother discovered him first, then got my mom hooked, and then me. I didn’t like the first one his son wrote on his own, then there were a couple that seemed more like the old DF, then I wandered away. it just wasn’t the same.

    I love the one with the toy maker. I clearly need to reread them all. They’re one of my favorite “It’s the depth of winter and I have a terrible cold” rereads.

  22. Dick Francis’s For Kicks was my first “adult” book. I snagged it from my mother’s bookshelf, and she looked at me reading it, and said, “That might be a lot for you,” but didn’t take it from me. I think I was ten-ish? And yeah, I was shocked! SHOCKED! but also hooked. She had just bought Reflex, and so I took that one next.
    Hooked me on competence porn, and what my mother always calls “transparent” writing. Where it’s just so smooth and clean that all there is in your head is the character and the story.
    I actually stole them all from her and they have moved with me for over 30 years, surviving lots and lots of book purges.
    And despite being older, they avoid a lot of the worst issues with old books because

  23. Decades ago I was in London with a friend when DF was doing a book tour. I went to a signing at a bookstore and because he was about my favorite author at the time, I asked if he would do a photo. He very graciously agreed. As we got set for the photo, we simultaneously took off our glasses and looked at each other and laughed at our vanity. He was a kind man I think.

    And now I must begin a reread. It’s been too long since I visited Sid and Kit and all the heroes whose names I’ve forgotten.

  24. Being the horse nerd I am, I don’t know how I’ve never read a Dick Francis novel. I’ve heard nothing but good things of his work. I vaguely remember trying one of his books as a middle schooler – maybe 12yo or so – and just couldn’t stick with it. Unusual for me to leave a book unfinished, but perhaps to be expected when trying something a little heavier at that age. I’ve never gotten around to revisiting his work as an adult, but I’m clearly long overdue. Thanks for the list of favorites, that gives me a great starting point.

  25. I think I was 10 when I picked up my first DF. My parents were constant readers whose tastes in fiction run (still) to mysteries, so there were always paperbacks lying around. Even in the 70s you could get used paperbacks all over the place for no money, which is what we had at the time. 🙂 Don’t remember what that first title was, but I was hooked immediately – having spent the preceding few years obsessively reading Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series.

    I have all of DF’s books, including the autobiography. All in hardcover first edition except Dead Cert, and almost all signed. Met the man a few times at signings, sent him a fan letter, got a charming reply which remains one of my treasures.

    Total agreement with Cari’s comment above re: desperation. The immediacy of DF’s heroes’ emotions (and physical reactions) in the face of fear and/or dread have never IMO been done better. Only someone with life experience like his could get that on the page, I think. The whole sequence in Forfeit when the hero is trying to get his polio-stricken wife (also from life – DF’s wife Mary had it) out of their flat and to safety is one of the most suspenseful things I’ve ever read.

    Agreed that son Felix has many of the Francis Elements in place but I think doesn’t communicate the sort of genuine faith in humanity that his father could. Felix clearly doesn’t trust the police. There’s a flavor of vigilantism and a whiff of cynicism.

    Choosing a DF Favorite 5 is difficult and of course now I want to re-read all of them first to last. The ones I re-read most often are:

    1. Straight. Fascinated with the gem trade, loved the way the hero was pitched into it, and how his attempt to cope with loss of his brother is inextricable from the mystery of the missing diamonds.

    2. Hot Money. The family dynamics in this one are such soap opera. In historical romance, the father/son conflict would usually be backstory. Here the father/son rapprochement is central.

    3. Proof. Wino here but also loved the way the hero is slowly drawn into life again because of his involvement with the investigation.

    4. The Edge. Have been dying to do a Canada Transcontinental Road Trip ever since.

    5. Flying Finish. The hero of this book is not at first a lovable character. He’s caught in a trap we see a lot in historical romance: aristocrat with not enough money to maintain or even cope with the expectations of the role. His vision of his future is as grey as his name, until he meets Gabriella. I was desperate for a sequel because I wanted more (all) of the Henry/Gabriella romance. 🙂

    But I also love Risk, In the Frame, Smokescreen, and For Kicks. Yeah, I need to re-read all of these.

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