by Rob Lopresti
Some random thoughts on the passing of Dick Francis . . .
I refused to read him for many years, thinking: why would I want to read mysteries about sports? And worse, by an athlete? How good can that be?
Well, very good, in fact. And it is quite clear that Francis had experienced that kind of attitude before. His heroes are almost always underrated, by the bad guys, of course, but by other people as well. Off the top of my head, I can remember Francis heroes who were scorned because they were: jockeys, short, bespectacled, one-armed, illegitimate, aristocrats, working at jobs they inherited, etc. Clearly a man as smart as Dick Francis got tired of seeing the look in people’s eyes that said: What does he know? He’s just a jockey!.
In the picture
My favorite of his novels, by a long shot (sorry, puns burst out of nowhere when you write about racing) is Reflex. The hero, Philip Nore, is a jockey just beginning to think about considering meditating on the possibility of starting a new career, while dealing with a pile of puzzles left behind by a murdered photographer. At the same time he is asked to solve a mystery involving his own family. Nore’s mother had been a drug-addicted party girl and he remembers his childhood as simple chaos: years of being casually dumped in one casual friend’s home after another. But when he starts researching the family mystery Nore discovers that his past was an unbroken chain of near-strangers who went out of their way to protect, educate, and nurture him. Just as he starts groping towards a future, he discovers that he’s standing on a solid past. It is a surprisingly moving story.
And they’re off
More than most authors Francis seemed to understand what Joseph Campbell named the Call to Adventure. Most of his books start at the precise moment his character’s life changed.
“Art Matthews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races.” –Nerve
“I looked at my friend and saw a man who had robbed me.” –High Stakes
“I have told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker, but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead.” –Driving Force
“I accepted a commission that had been turned down by four other writers, but I was hungry at the time.” –Longshot
“Gordon Michael stood in the fountain with all his clothes on.” –Banker
“There was a God-awful cock-up in Bologna.” –The Danger
Most of Francis’s books followed a certain pattern: First person narrator encounters an evil plot that somehow involves horse racing. The plot is led by a (typically known) bad guy. The hero allows himself to be beaten/tortured and wins out. Let’s look at a few books that violate that formula, ever so slightly.
Hot Money. A wealthy father. Plenty of adult, alienated children. A murder plot. Readers used to Francis’s plots might not have even noticed that this time he wrote a traditional, even cozy-style murder mystery for once, complete with a killer revealed at the end.
Twice Shy. I think this was Francis’ attempt to prove that all his narrators were not identical. The first half is narrated by a pretty typical Francis hero. The second half, ten years later, is narrated by the hero’s kid brother, a much more laid-back kind of fella.
The Danger. Not all that different from the mold, but such a good story. The hero works for a security firm that specializes in rescuing kidnap victims; hence its ironic, innocent-sounding name: Liberty Market. He works his way through three possibly related kidnappings including, most chillingly, a boy whose wealthy father is reluctant to come up with the dough.
Field of Thirteen. Not a novel, but Francis’ chance to show his style in short races. Among the best stories are “The Day of the Losers,” in which he revels in the opportunity to use third person multiple viewpoints, and “Carrot For A Chestnut,” a noir story that takes a sudden much darker shift in its stinging surprise ending.
And one more thought
My favorite quote from Dick Francis, utterly English and very perceptive:
“Good manners are a sign of strength.” –Proof