Dick Francis has always been one of my favourite authors. He’s one for whom I will read everything he’s written – I think the only thing he wrote that I haven’t read yet is his biography of Lester Piggott. He’s the reason that I’m interested in horse racing, especially National Hunt (jump) racing. For anyone who doesn’t know, he was a jump jockey himself, who rode in the Grand National 8 times, including for the Queen Mother. His books almost all revolve around the horse world – his best books feature it in a prominent position, either as a setting or as the main character’s profession (jockey, usually) or both. His family helped him with the research on a lot of his books, and – after a break of a few years after his wife died – his son helped him write them. He died last weekend, of old age. One last book with his son is set to come out this fall. And this is one of the best tributes ever, I think.
I have a hard time picking my all-time favourite Dick Francis book. There are quite a few that I love, and will start with when I get in a Dick Francis mood. I can never remember the name of the one with the inventor, Steven Scott, but it’s one of my favourites. Decider, about the builder who finds himself with a share in a racecourse, is fascinating, as is the one about the actor set in South Africa (I think it’s Wild Horses, but that might be the one about the film director….and that’s also a really cool one). Proof makes me wish I knew more about wine. The Sid Halley books, the closest thing he’s got to a series, are great, as is the first Kit Fielding one (the second one is fine, but not one of my all-time favourites). The one about the South African rancher who ends up essentially spying is cool. To the Hilt is one of the best of his later years, even though it is a little bit farther away from the racing world. There are just so many fantastic books!
They’re not great literature, I must say. They probably aren’t going to be studied in fifty years’ time. They’re fast reads, “genre” reads in what is becoming a specific part of mystery/crime fiction: the racing mystery (there are a few “new Dick Francis”es out there). But they are interesting, and not obviously formulaic (Dan Brown, I’ve got you down almost to the page), and let you feel what it’s like to be in that world. When I go racing (too rarely!) I base most of what I know and what I look for in the races and at the course on what I learned from reading Dick Francis books. He, of course, talks about what it’s like in the inner circle, where I stand at the absolutely cheapest area possible, but I still know what I’m looking for because of him.
RIP, Dick Francis. I hope your race is run well.