Dick Francis: How a sporting calamity jump-started a great writing career

When his horse fell at the 1956 Grand National, it changed the course of my father’s life

Felix Francis and his father, Dick Francis. Aspects of our family life such as events, hobbies and occupations were used as a basis for the stories

Felix Francis and his father, Dick Francis. Aspects of our family life such as events, hobbies and occupations were used as a basis for the stories

 

“What’s it like to have grown up with a famous father?” It is a question I am often asked and my reply is quite simple: What is it like not to? It is all I have ever known.

My father was the British champion steeplechase jockey in the year I was born, and he also rode the horses owned by Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mother. That alone made him quite famous in the world of jump racing. But what catapulted the name Dick Francis from the back to the front pages of newspapers was the sudden collapse of his mount, Devon Loch, just 40 yards from a glorious royal victory in the 1956 Grand National.

A horse called ESB won the race, but who remembers that? And who cares? The story of Devon Loch’s Grand National, as the queen mother coined it, is still writ large in the annals of the world’s great sporting disasters. And it was that life-defining moment that thrust my father onto the path to becoming a successful writer.

Not that riding half a ton of racehorse at high speed over giant fences had been his first brush with mortal danger. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force in 1940 and served as a pilot, first of Spitfires and then of Wellington and Lancaster bombers. As he always said, “In spite of the injuries and the broken bones, jump racing is much safer because no one is shooting at you.”

The Devon Loch episode resulted in my father being approached by a literary agent to write his autobiography. “A good peg to hang it on,” the agent said. Nowadays, all successful sportsmen and women write an autobiography but, back then, it was rare. My father set to work and, with my mother’s help, they produced The Sport of Queens, published to critical acclaim in 1957, soon after my father had been forced to retire from race riding due to injury and advancing age. (He was 36!)

Family business: Felix Francis and his parents, Mary and Dick Francis. It was the worst-kept secret in publishing that the Dick Francis books were written by both Dick and Mary Francis together
Family business: Felix Francis and his parents, Mary and Dick Francis. It was the worst-kept secret in publishing that the Dick Francis books were written by both Dick and Mary together
Discussion over the breakfast table was likely to be not who was doing the school run that day, but whether Sid Halley could survive the night with a .38 slug in his guts

John Junor, the then editor-in-chief of the Sunday Express, read the book and invited my father to write six weekly features for his newspaper about the current racing scene. Those half-a-dozen articles developed into 16 years of full employment without my father missing a single deadline, and he was one of the first to successfully transit the unseen thorny barrier between “us” and “them” – those who participate in a sport and those who write about it, where suspicion is rife and trust between them in short supply.

Being a racing columnist was a steady job and it undoubtedly taught him both writing discipline and style, but it was nowhere near as lucrative as being a top professional sportsman. My mother would complain that the car was beginning to knock and the carpets were getting threadbare. “You always said we should write a crime story about racing,” she said to Dad, “so now’s the time for us to get on with it.”

Dead Cert was published in early 1962. The day the book was accepted by an American publisher, my father went out and bought a new car.

Two years later Nerve hit the bookstands, with For Kicks appearing a year later. And so a pattern was formed, with a new Dick Francis novel published every year for the rest of the millennium.

Fiction factory

For my part, I grew up in what I have often described as the greatest fiction factory of the 20th century, where discussion between my parents over the breakfast table was more likely to be not who was doing the school run that day, but whether Sid Halley could survive the night with a .38 slug in his guts.

My father always referred to the authorship as the “family business” and aspects of our family life such as events, hobbies and occupations were used as a basis for the stories. To help with the research, my mum learned to fly (for Flying Finish and Rat Race), took up photography (for Reflex) and started painting (for In the Frame), while my profession as a physics teacher appeared in Twice Shy and my brother’s racehorse transport company was the basis for Driving Force.

Over the years, other friends and family were cajoled into spilling the beans on the seedier aspects of their jobs, such as an architect cousin (for Decider), an accountant (for Risk), a vet (for Comeback), and even a prime minister (for 10lb Penalty). Trips to South Africa and Canada, for dad to act as a judge at horse shows, were utilised in Smokescreen and The Edge, and his and my mother’s lifelong love of fine wine was put to good use in Proof.

Jockey Dick Francis riding Devon Loch on December 8th, 1956. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images
Jockey Dick Francis riding Devon Loch on December 8th, 1956. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images
I had written parts of the books for years – all the scientific bits. I designed the remote-controlled bomb in Rat Race and created the computer programme in Twice Shy

Shattered, in 2000, was my parents’ 39th mystery book and they announced that it would be their last. The book was well named: they were tired, and they were retiring. My father was nearing 80 and my mother’s health was not good, with a return of some of the symptoms of the polio she had suffered 50 years previously. Sadly, my mother’s long and happy retirement lasted just three weeks before she died suddenly of a heart attack.

And that, everyone thought, would be that.

It was the worst-kept secret in publishing that the Dick Francis books were written by both Dick and Mary Francis together. With her gone, it seemed, there would certainly be no more.

But everyone was wrong.

Five years later I was managing my father’s affairs and I had lunch with his literary agent.

“We have a problem,” said the agent. “All your father’s books will soon go out of print.”

A problem indeed.

“It’s not that the stories aren’t good enough,” he explained. “It’s just that, after five years with no published novel, people are forgetting. What we require is a new Dick Francis hardback.”

Breakfast

He must be mad, I thought. My mother was dead and my father was 85 and could hardly remember what he’d had for breakfast, let alone enough to write a novel. I shook my head.

“What I’m actually asking,” the agent went on, “is your permission to ask an established crime-fiction author to write a ‘Dick Francis’ novel. Just to stimulate sales of the backlist.”

I must have had a few glasses of red wine by this stage because I jumped right in. “Okay, but before you ask anyone else, I would like to have a go first.”

I had written parts of the Dick Francis books for years – all the scientific bits. I designed the remote-controlled bomb that blew up a light aircraft in Rat Race and created the computer program in Twice Shy. I had even penned the last third of Shattered when my parents were clearly struggling. Surely I could have a go at a complete novel?

Thankfully the agent didn’t roll his eyes at my foolishness. He simply told me to go home and write the first two chapters and then we would see.

Eight weeks later I presented my chapters and, to my delight, he loved them and told me to get on and finish it.

Felix Francis and Dick Francis in 2005
Felix Francis and Dick Francis in 2005
‘Dick Francis’ has become my brand – and I am proud of it. It somehow reminds me of the responsibility I bear to maintain the high standard set by my parents

Under Orders was published in September 2006. I argued that, in order to stimulate sales in the Dick Francis backlist, it had to have the name “Dick Francis” alone on the cover. I knew it would sell because of that name, but I was worried that the reviews would all say that Dick had lost his touch. But they didn’t. Instead, they all claimed that “the master is back”.

The book went to the top of the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic and suddenly there was a clamour for another one. A plan that had been intended only to sell previous stories now had a life of its own.

Postponement

Dead Heat came out in 2007. This time it had my name on the cover as well – in a much smaller font – and there has been a new novel every year since, a sequence only broken by the Covid epidemic causing a postponement of my 15th hardback, Iced, from 2020 into 2021.

Guilty Not Guilty, my 2019 novel, is published in paperback this month and joins the Dick Francis stable, where all 53 former titles now remain in print – so I must be doing something right. The tag line on the cover is “Who do you believe?” and this is the crux of the story: do you believe the protagonist or his brother-in-law concerning the death of their wife/sister? The police are convinced it is a simple case of a husband murdering his spouse, and our hero has to unmask the real killer in order to clear his name. It is a story of malice and deception, right to the very last word.

Over time, my name on the book covers has become bigger and my dad’s smaller but still, 11 years after his death, they all remain styled as a “Dick Francis novel”. That is my wish. “Dick Francis” has become a brand – now my brand – and I am proud of it. It somehow reminds me of the responsibility I bear to maintain the high standard set by my parents.

I was just three years old when Devon Loch bellyflopped onto the Aintree turf and it surprises me now that I ever made it to four. According to my mother, I had a habit of scampering across the sittingroom carpet, throwing my arms out in front and my legs out behind, while tactlessly shouting: “I’m being Devon Loch. Down I go, bump!”

Apart from this minor faux pas, my life has been loving, happy and relatively carefree, with the inheritance of that “family business”, a literary legacy that I hope I am continuing to enhance through my own writing.

So, what’s it like to have grown up with a famous father?

It’s great fun.

Guilty Not Guilty is published in paperback by Simon and Schuster

My Top Five Dick Francis books

How can I choose just five? I love them all.

1. Bonecrack (1971)
This has always been my favourite of my father’s books. It is a story about two fathers and two sons and, in particular, how the development of a working relationship between the sons changes the dynamics that exist between each father and his son. It is a tale of how the sons seek to establish their own existence, emerging from the shadows of their domineering fathers, and the distinction between total dependence and true independence as a means to that end.

But, of course, it’s a thriller too – a story of threats and coercion, of mystery, violence and intrigue. It is not a “whodunit” in the traditional sense, as the reader knows who the villain is on page six. It is more a tale of a battle of wills between two strong personalities both of whom are determined to prevail.

2. Odds Against (1965)
Sid Halley makes his first appearance (of five) in Odds Against as the recently retired champion jockey, forced to quit the sport he loves due to a horrific injury to his left hand. He appears to be wasting his life until he gets shot and nearly loses it altogether. The incident spurs him into action, investigating the world of high finance and property development, in particular the taking over of racecourses for building land, and those who would stop at nothing to force the deal through – including murder.

3. The Danger (1973)
Kidnapping is a fact of life. Always has been, always will be. Less risky and more lucrative than robbing banks. Andrew Douglas is a kidnap negotiator charged with obtaining the safe return of a hostage while ensuring that the ransom paid is not so extortionate that the family resent the victim for evermore. An Italian lady jockey is snatched and Andrew is sent to get her back. Then there’s another grab, this time of a child. Is there a pattern? Andrew pits his wits against the mastermind behind it all, and it’s a fight to the death.

4. For Kicks (1965)
I am unashamedly going for some of the earlier of my father’s books because they had the greatest influence on me both as a reader and, now, as the writer of the “Dick Francis novels”. For Kicks certainly remains one of the very best Dick Francis books, even 55 years after it was first released. Daniel Roke is a young, wealthy, successful horse breeder in Australia whose life is turned upside down (literally) when he is invited to come to the UK to investigate some bizarre goings-on in the world of thoroughbred horseracing. And death and destruction tag along for the ride.

5. Forfeit (1968)
Winner of the first of my father’s three Edgar Allen Poe Awards for Best American Mystery Novel, Forfeit is the story of a journalist, James Tyrone, who is a racing reporter for a London scandal sheet. He knows that fellow writer Bert Chekov is a drunk, but always thought he was an honest one. But when Bert suddenly dies in an “accidental” fall from a window, Tyrone suspects the clues to his death might be found in some newspaper columns he’d been writing touting can’t-lose horses – who then mysteriously failed to show up on race day.

In between trips to cover the next big race and secret rendezvous with a sensual new mistress, Tyrone sets out to prove that Chekov has been murdered. But he doesn’t appreciate the terrifying risk he’s taking until it’s almost too late.

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