I enjoy a good mystery, but I was hesitant at first to pick up a Dick Francis mystery. After all, I don’t know or care anything about horse racing. But on one of my travels, I was stuck for some reading material and picked up an abandoned copy of a Dick Francis novel. I was hooked. Although the settings are always directly or tangentially related to horse racing, the books are just good reads. And I even learned a bit about horse racing.
Francis wrote 43 hugely successful novels, which have sold more than 60 million copies. He always gave a copy of his latest novel to the Queen Mother, who had also been his patron on the racetrack. After his wife Mary died in 2000, Francis, by then nearing his 80s, did not produce another book for six years when three more co-written with his son Felix were published. Reportedly, a final novel is due for publication later this year.
Francis also wrote “The Sport of Queens,” his autobiography, and a biography of Lester Piggott, considered to be the best jockey of his generation and the greatest English flat jockey of all time, with 4,493 career wins, including nine Derby victories.
Sid Halley, a disabled former jockey turned detective, first became a character in “Odds Against,” published in 1965 and reappeared in “Whip Hand,” “ Come to Grief,” and “Under Orders.” Yorkshire Television purchased the rights to the Francis books, but the series did not catch on and was finally canceled after six episodes. I remember watching each of the six episodes on television in 1979 or 1980.
Dick Francis is the winner of the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger and the only three-time recipient of the Mystery Writer of America’s Edgar Award for Best Novel, winning for “Forfeit” in 1970, “Whip Hand” in 1981, and “Come to Grief” in 1996, the same year he was made a Grand Master for a lifetime’s achievement. He was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2000.
Francis became a successful jump jockey after the second world war, where he served in the RAF. He was champion jockey in 1953-54. He rode 345 winners in a nine-year career, but it was the Devon Loch disaster that made him a national hero—a gallant loser. The Queen Mother's horse, well ahead of the field, was heading for victory when it suddenly fell a few yards short of the winning post. By the time jockey and horse had recovered, most of the rest of the field had gone past. Francis always regretted not winning the Grand National, but did say in 2006, “The Devon Loch episode was a terrible thing but I look back on it now and I can say that if it hadn’t happened I might never have written a book, and my books have certainly helped keep the wolf from the door.”
Want to settle down with an excellent mystery? Start with “Dead Cert” and work your way through to his latest, “Even Money.” And then you can enjoy his posthumous novel due out before Christmas.
Ralph Stone is a San Francisco resident.