Every Dick Francis book was the same -- and I loved them all
After the author's death, Simon Barnes reflects on the king of airplane books
I once wrote a review of a Dick Francis thriller without reading it. I wasn't going to waste a new Dick Francis on a bloody review when I had a transatlantic flight coming up, was I?
So I wrote a piece saying that I knew the book was going to be good. I trusted it, and that's why I was saving it for later. Three Bloody Marys and a new Dick Francis and you're in New York before you know you've taken off.
The author died on Sunday at the age of 89. He was a seriously good jockey, but that wasn't enough for him. His riding career is best known for the disaster of Devon Loch, who was the Queen Mother's horse. They were leading the Grand National, certain winners, when the horse inexplicably collapsed underneath him. Soon after it got back up again and trotted off. It was Francis who was shattered.
This, to a professional athlete, quite desperate experience meant that he entered his post-retirement life a man unfulfilled. He always said that without Devon Loch, he might never have written a book.
And what books they were. There were 42 of them. All utter tripe, if you want to take the snobbish point of view. Call 'em what you like, you have to keep reading them. You have to, not so much to find out what happens next as to get the hero out of the terrible troubles and injustices that surround him.
True, the characterisation is thin, sometimes the technical aspects of the plot creak, a lot of it is downright improbable. But so what? The glorious, brilliant, unstoppable narrative drive made book after book utterly compelling.
And every book was the same book: and every book was a book you wanted to read. That was his triumph. You have a punning laconic title -- Nerve, Dead Cert -- an unassuming hero forced to battle against the whole world. You can throw in a pretty girl to help out, and often a rather forgettable villain whose dastardly work is, against all the odds, defeated. Who are these heroes we are forced to care so much about? He is always the same, always in the first person, a man of self-evident decency, much put-upon, a man of hitherto untapped, but apparently bottomless, reserves of courage and resolve. A man rather like me, as a matter of fact.
Add to this a subtle streak of self-pity. Francis's I-characters often have some kind of problem, even a deformity: one hand, half-blind, polio-stricken wife, alcoholic brother, impossible father. These problems are borne every bit as stoically as you and I would. In the end it becomes clear that it's not this creation of his we have to rescue by reading to the end. It's me. It's you.
A lot of the books, and all the early ones, have a racing background. Francis filled National Hunt Racing with a series of implausible villains and heroic jockeys who overcome them. You can win the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Francis, but, significantly, never the Grand National.
The racing background came naturally to him, but as his career developed he became more and more keen on building different narrative worlds.
Here he always credited his wife, Mary, with huge help on the research side of things. Some of the books have a flying background; others have banking, the antiques business, the wine trade and gold dealing. One of the I-characters is a film star; another a private investigator; another an expert on the kidnapping business; yet another is a painter (of horses, naturally).
In fact, it is believed widely that Mary, an ex-school teacher, did the actual writing, though both denied this. No matter who tapped the keys, this was always a collaboration. After Mary died, Francis collaborated with his son Felix; they have a book due out this autumn, Cross Fire.
The sameness of his books is not his weakness, but rather his strength. You know what you're getting with a Dick Francis. And given that there are so many of them, his consistency is astonishing. I have hardly met a dud, and I have read an awful lot of them.
Perhaps the best is Bonecrack, set in Newmarket, in which our hero outwits an insane Mafia chief who is fixated on the idea of having his son win the Derby as a jockey. It's not terribly likely, no, but you don't argue the point when the plot's on the gallop and the baddie's coming to get you.
The weightiest is The Danger, the kidnap one. And Hot Money actually has a strong character alongside the narrator.
How should we assess the Francis oeuvre? As incomparable entertainment, as the best airplane books ever written. Marcel Proust merely wrote about time: Dick Francis destroyed time. Are we at JFK already?