Dick Francis

February 18, 2010 at 3:28 pm (Anglophilia, books, Horses, Mystery fiction, Remembrance, Travel)

According to the itinerary for the Smithsonian Tour entitled Classic Mystery Lover’s England, this activity is scheduled for October 20:

Step into a Dick Francis mystery during a morning focused on horse racing. Witness a display of strength and discipline during the morning “gallops” and view these fine race horses up close at the stable. Over coffee with the trainer, take an in-depth look at the culture of horseracing in the Cotswolds, described in Francis’ novels, from his first, Dead Cert, to the most recent, Under Orders.*

Ron and I took this tour in 2006. At the time, we  weren’t sure that this particular excursion would prove to be worthwhile. After all, we  were not actually going to meet Dick Francis…

In the event, this visit turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We got to the stables early in the morning, when the horses are first taken out to be exercised. The Downs were enveloped in a fine mist, which gradually cleared as the sun grew warmer. Two of the stable’s employees took obvious pleasure in showing us around and answering our questions. A small dog – a Jack Russell terrier, I believe – was delighted to have such a large company of amiable humans on hand and darted back and forth among us.

In the chill air of morning, you could see the horses’ breath. They were beautiful animals.

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Dead Cert (1962) was featured on the reading list prepared for out trip. Although I have long been a reader of Dick Francis’s books, I had never read this one, the author’s  first, and was afraid it would come across as  dated. My reservations turned out to be completely unfounded. Dead Cert was a joy to read: the character were engaging, as was the racing lore. The plot moved at lightning speed, like – well, like a steeplechase jockey and his mount headed confidently for a first place finish.**

Dick Francis was born in Wales in 1920. Prior to the First World War, his father had been a steeplechase jockey; after the war, he managed the W.H. Smith Stables in Maidenhead (Berkshire, England). Immersed from childhood in a world of horses and racing, Dick Francis became devoted to that world. It was an ardor born early and destined, in the coming years, to increase in intensity. He left school at  the age of fifteen to pursue his own dream of become a jockey. The rest, as they say, is history; you can read about that history here.

Richard Stanley Francis CBE: 1920 - 2010

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My own interest in horse racing was bequeathed to me by my father. When we were kids, he used to spend his Saturdays at the track. (In the way of children, I assumed at the time that this was what everyone’s Dad did on weekends.) These weekly excursions were his chief means of escape from the pressures of work. When Dick Francis began writing his novels of the racing world, my Dad was pleased to discover them. I like to picture the two of them encountering each other in the hereafter. If you see my Dad, Mr. Francis, be sure to greet  him warmly. In later years, he was a great fan of yours.

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*This needs updating. As of now, the latest novel is Easy Money (2009), co-authored with Francis’s son Felix. Crossfire is due out in August of this year.

**The early 1960s were pivotal years for British crime fiction. Like Dead Cert, Cover Her Face, P.D. James’s first entry in her acclaimed Adam Dalgliesh series, came out in 1962. Ruth Rendell brought out the first Wexford novel, From Doon with Death, two years later.

1 Comment

  1. End of summer crime fiction roundup: some good reading here « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] they read. Dick Francis was well known for providing this entertaining diversion in his work. (We miss you, Dick!) I’ve been pleased to encounter it in Maitland’s books. A student working with […]

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