Champion jockey and best-selling crime writer

 

DICK FRANCIS:DICK FRANCIS, who has died aged 89, was a unique figure – a champion steeplechase jockey who, without any previous apparent literary bent, became an international best-selling writer, the author of 42 crime novels, selling more than 60 million copies in 35 languages.

Right from the start, with Dead Certin 1962, the Dick Francis thriller showed a mastery of lean, witty genre prose reminiscent – sometimes to the point of parody – of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It was an American style that many clever people in England had attempted to reproduce without much success, and it was a wonder how a barely educated jockey was able to do the trick with such effortless ease. People said his highly educated wife wrote the books for him. It was a mystery that was never satisfactorily solved.

The most dramatic incident in his racing career was also a mystery. In the Grand National at Aintree in 1956, his mount Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse trained by Peter Cazalet, was well ahead only 50 yards from the finish when it suddenly collapsed and was unable to continue. Some said the horse had attempted to jump an imaginary fence; another theory, put up years later by Bill Braddon, Cazalet’s head lad, was that the girth was too tight and the horse suddenly let loose an enormous fart.

There was no question of Francis, like a crooked jockey out of one of his own books, having pulled the horse. It had been his great dream since he was a lad of eight in 1928 and listened to the Grand National on the radio as Tipperary Tim won at 100/1, to be a steeplechase jockey and win that ultimate prize. Ironically, Devon Loch’s collapse ensured Francis a place in the history of the race that he would not have had if he had been merely another winner.

Francis was champion jockey in the 1953-54 season. He rode the Queen’s horses for Cazalet, the royal trainer, from 1953 until 1957. Some said he always rode like an amateur, and failed to have a really strong finish. He had indeed started as an amateur, going professional in 1948, but he was a masterful rider and a perfect size for a jump jockey, 5ft 8in and 10 stone.

In 1957 the Queen Mother sacked him. The Marquess of Abergavenny, racing administrator and friend of the Queen Mother, told him it was time to stop. He suggested that Francis had suffered too many injuries – he had dislocated his shoulder so many times that he had to be permanently strapped – and should quit while he was ahead. Francis was shattered by this dismissal by the Queen Mother, for whom he had a rather old-fashioned reverence.

He asked what he was to do for a living. The Marquess said something always turned up. Francis had wept when Devon Loch fell and he wept again, walking away from his meeting with the Marquess through Hyde Park. “I nearly flung myself into the Serpentine,” he said, years later.

He wrote a racing column for the Sunday Express, but it paid only £20 a week, far less than he was used to earning. Francis was not a particularly good tipster, but he was brave in his attacks on the Jockey Club and the toffs of racing. He continued this in his thrillers. But his years at the Sunday Expressdid not make him love Fleet Street, and journalists were usually low, dishonest characters in his books.

The Queen Mother was a fan. He always got a first edition to her, and said he did not put in the usual sex and bad language of the genre because he knew the Queen Mother would be reading; she did once complain about the violence.

Born at Coedcanlas Farm in southwest Wales in the Pembrokeshire village of Lawrenny, Francis came from a line of farming gentry and horsemen. His father was a show rider and manager of hunting stables, his grandfather a farmer and gentleman jockey. The family home was a beautiful old farmhouse, but it had neither gas nor electricity. He went to a one-class village school, attending only three days a week and riding the rest of the time, until the family moved to Maidenhead in Berkshire, where his father was manager of a stable. Dick went to Maidenhead county boys’ school, but his attendance was no better and he left at 15 to work for his father.

When the war came, he joined the RAF and served in the Western Desert before going to pilot training in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He never flew in combat, but he was a Spitfire pilot before being transferred to heavy bombers. His lack of schooling gave him trouble with navigation.

In 1947, he married Mary Brenchley. A well-off middle-class girl whose main interest was the theatre, she was assistant stage manager at the Hereford Repertory Theatre at the time and also worked as a publisher’s reader. She could ride, but had no love of racing. The story goes that Dick and Mary went to see a murder mystery at the Oxford Playhouse and came away thinking they could do better. Dick produced Dead Certand gave it to Michael Joseph because he had ridden horses for the publisher. Originally, Francis wanted Mary’s name on the book as co-author, but it was thought better business sense to have only Dick’s.

In his excellent unauthorised biography, Dick Francis: A Racing Life(1999), Graham Lord produces telling circumstantial evidence that Dick could not have written the books without Mary. The speculation may have arisen because Mary was a well-educated woman with a degree in French and English literature. What is clear about the thrillers is that whoever wrote them had a wide knowledge of the American tough-guy school of detective fiction. Here a knowledge of French literature would seem to be no help, while ’tec stories and thrillers would perhaps be the sort of thing a jockey would read. The fact that when interviewers spoke of formalism and hermeneutics, Dick did not know what they were talking about, proves nothing. Hammett and Chandler would probably not have known either.

Dick and Mary had a very close and happy marriage, spending seven months of the year travelling and researching, and five months writing. A book appeared every year in time for Christmas. They were all best-sellers. By the end, in Britain alone each new book would sell 100,000 in hardback and 500,000 in paperback. Francis won several gold and silver dagger awards from the Crime Writers’ Association, and was given the Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding contribution to the genre. He was made a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master. He was appointed OBE in 1984 and CBE in 2000.

The books were unusual for best-sellers, because Francis did not have a hero like Holmes or Poirot. Only Sid Halley, an injured jockey turned detective, makes repeat appearances. The Francis tales are told in the first person, and the hero/narrator, whether ill-educated jockey or son of earl, was always an upstanding man with a secret sorrow. Francis said his damaged heroes gave him “something to fill up the pages”.

The plots, too, ran to a formula. Some reviewers protested that racing could not be as crooked as depicted in the novels, but real life (as in the case of the Shergar kidnapping) came in to prove how realistic his stories were.

As well as the thrillers, he wrote his autobiography, The Sport of Queens(1957), and Lester(1986), a biography of Lester Piggott.

Because of Mary’s poor health – she had suffered from polio – and his many injuries, they fled English winters for Florida and Grand Cayman in the British West Indies. Each year they returned to the Radcliffe hotel in Paignton, Devon, for a family holiday.

Mary died in 2000. Afterwards,when no new novels appeared, it looked as if Mary might have written them. But, six years later, Francis produced Under Orders,which had all the old flavour. The next year he published Dead Heat, then Silks(2008) and Even Money(2009). Much of the research for the novels was done by his son Felix, who left his job teaching at Bloxham school in Oxfordshire to work for his father. His other son, Merrick, was a racehorse trainer and then ran a horse transport business. They both survive him.

Richard (Dick) Stanley Francis: born October 31st, 1920; died February 14th, 2010