Monday, 7 December 2015

The Family Francis: writers of racing mysteries

I have always loved a good mystery book, with the first adult novel that I recall being an Agatha Christie, at around age 10.

Dick Francis has filled my murder-mystery imagination since owning my first horse in 1982. The horse was an ex-racehorse, and I think that formed the bridge to my giving these racing mystery books a try.

I was not that keen at first to read racing mysteries, but I seem to recall that, as I was a member of the Doubleday Book Club, there was a double-offer with something else, so I gave one of Mr Francis's books a go.

And loved it.

Since that time, I have bought every book he wrote. Some were not so good - like his South African sojourn in "Smokescreen". Some were spectacular, like Tony Beach, Lee Morris, Sid Halley, or Kit Fielding. His characters travelled widely, explored new worlds, did a hard job of work, and thought. A lot.

Mr Francis's characters have believably been completely associated with racing, or on the very fringes of it. The racecourse and race horse breeding, training and racing have been the constant backdrop.

For those of you who don't know Dick Francis, he was a national hunt jockey. In 1953-54 he was the champion steeplechase jockey, and in 1956 ALMOST won the Grand National but his mount collapsed just short of the finish. He who rode for the Queen Mother from 1953 until 1957 (with the royal trainer, Peter Cazalet). After - or even perhaps during - a short Fleet Street stint, he wrote his autobiography, soon followed by his first racing mystery.

Then carried on to write another forty-odd.

There is an excellent lack of lust in the books: instead there is interest, regard and depth to relationships. All of Mr Francis's characters suffer from loss at some point, but all have a wonderful capacity for making connections, and for building new relationships (if tenatively). They remain true to themselves, and are generally believable characterisations.

Mr Francis wrote very few sequels in his career. There are only two: Kit Fielding in what seems to be two books, but is really a two part story over two books; and Sid Halley. There are currently four Sid Halley books.

The reason I say 'currently' is that Mr Francis died in 2010, but his son, Felix, had been researching and writing with him for some time. Since Mr Francis's senior's death, Mr Felix Francis has been writing on 'his own account', so to speak.

While Mr Francis junior obviously does not have the depth of racing knowledge that his father had - by dint of his years of racing, and of riding for the Queen Mother - he does have the advantage of having grown up in that environment.

Second-hand smoke, if you will.

While Mr Francis junior does not have quite the flair that his father had, he does a fair job. Enough to keep me buying - and listening - for now.


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