Remembering Dick Francis

Beloved mystery suspense author Dick Francis died on Valentine’s Day at the age of 89. Francis, a former jockey to the Queen Mother, is a wonderful example of how one can reinvent one’s life, even after bitter disappointment. When he was 37, he lost the Grand National, steeplechase’s most prestigious race when his horse collapsed momentarily right near the finish line. It was the last race of his career. Here is the video of that event:

Forced to retire because of multiple injuries, Francis began to write, first an autobiography, then a racing column, finally fiction. Because his books always included some aspect of racing, Francis found a way to remain involved in the world he loved. He also gained more success and fame than he ever could have done as a jockey.

I discovered Dick Francis’s books in the 1990s, after I had finished my Masters in Social Work and suddenly had time on my hands. Mine was not a straight line back to reading Romance, you see, but Dick Francis was an important step along the way, because what I loved about his books is what I love about Historical Romance.

I didn’t really care about the mystery in his books, but I loved his heroes. Heroes like Sid Halley, who were brave, good, honorable, but flawed men who generally did what was right. (Sid Halley, by the way, was the hero of four books and shared some of Francis’s history. He, too, had been a jockey forced to retire because of injuries.) I am certain Francis’s heroes have influenced how I create mine.

I also loved the worlds he created so vividly they made me feel as if I were a part of them. Francis recreated the world of racing, but the principles are the same. I try to write as accurately and as authentically as he did. Mostly, I try to make the Regency come alive for readers like his racing world came alive for me.

In the 1990s, still before I started writing, Dick Francis came to a bookstore near us for a book signing. It was a small neighborhood Waldens Books, when small neighborhood bookstores still existed. I dragged my husband, son (about age 9 at the time and thoroughly bored), and our friend Virginia. I had never been to a book signing before and had never met an author. The line snaked around the store and it took a couple of hours to get to the head of it.

Francis seemed old and frail even then, a slight figure of a man who looked like a mild wind could topple him over. At my instigation, Virginia presented him with a list of his books in the Library of Congress collection (now easily accessible online) and he was surprised and pleased.

Dick Francis’s was a long life, well-lived. I am grateful the world had such a man and I’m grateful that he gave us so many wonderful stories. I am glad I met him. And I’m glad for what he taught me about creating heroes and creating a fictional world that seems real.

Have you read Dick Francis? Which books are your favorite? (mine were Driving Force and the Sid Halley books, Odds Against and Whiphand)
What non-Romance authors have been your favorites or have influenced you in some way?

**Tonite at 9 pm on PBS American Experience is showing a biography of Dolley Madison. You know, the First Lady who saved George Washington’s portrait when those pesky English soldiers burned the White House. Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott on the Two Nerdy History Girls Blog did a blog called “Dressing Dolley Madison” with a link to a video of the costume designer for the Dolley Madison show. Take a peek. It is so interesting. (Amanda, tell your modiste about this!)**

I have a new contest at my website. And a re-release of my RITA winner, A Reputable Rake in the UK anthology Regency High Society Affairs, v 13

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Kim in Hawaii
12 years ago

Thank you, Diane, for the loving tribute to Dick Francis! I have not read Dick, but will find his title that you loved!

I offer an easy answer to your question about my favorite non-romance author – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I had not read any Sherlock Holmes books but my future husband had the Granada videos with Jeremy Brett. After watching the videos, I read the books, taking me back to gritty London and the beautiful English countryside. My favorite book is the Hound of the Baskervilles since it set on the dark and moody Dartmoor. My grandmother lived near Dartmoor and treated me to picnics among its famous rock formations. Two summers ago, hubby and I visited the specific sites on Dartmoor which inspired ACD to write the story. Sir Arthur befriended his local driver named Baskerville. I read that he was buried the town of Ashburton on the edge of Dartmoor. So we stopped at the church and searched the cemetary in vain. Back in the santuary, I spent a few minutes in quiet reflection and found myself transported to the scene in Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor where Dougless cried by the marble tomb. Luckily, my own Knight in Shining Armor wisked me back to our B&B before I could travel back in time.

Thanks to everyone for their thoughts and prayers as Hawaii prepared for a Tsumani that missed us. But we learned to be prepared!

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

I’m so glad Hawaii was spared, Kim!

I love that you visited a place you first encountered in books. And I, too, have not read Sherlock Holmes. There is so much great fiction I have not read! Must fire up my Kindle!

Nicola Cornick
12 years ago

Thank you for this lovely tribute to Dick Francis, Diane. He was one of my favourite authors and I love finding other writers who share a passion for his books. My favourites are Flying Finish and Rat Race. Both books make me cry even though I have read them many times. He was so skilled at drawing you into world and making you care about his characters and really ratcheting up the tension in the story. I totally agree about his heroes too!

12 years ago

Good news about Hawaii!

I love Dick Francis. I started reading him because of the horses. Interestingly enough, the one I remember best is “Shattered.” I was expecting the usual and suddenly there is all this stuff about glass. I was fascinated beyond the level of the story.

Of course, my favorite non-romance writer is JRR Tolkien, though he clearly had a romance with words. His works and books related to him fill a shelf, along with some CS Lewis and Ellis Peters.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Judy, of course you would include Tolkien! I think you are not alone in finding books that literally could change your life. (that’s a good topic for a blog someday, isn’t it?)

Nicola, that is it! He always made me care about his heroes!

Jane George
12 years ago

I discovered Dick Francis in high school. The impact Dead Cert and Nerve had on me has yet to be repeated. Sid Halley (Whip Hand, Odds Against) and Kit Fielding (Bolt, Break-In) are my favorite Francis heroes.
Dick Francis had an amazing life, not least part of which was his partnership with his wife Mary. Thanks for honoring him!

Allison Chase
12 years ago

I had the pleasure of discovering Dick Francis at a Friends of The Library luncheon here in So. Florida back in the mid-80s. He was a delight to listen to, and his books a joy to read. He had a gentlemanly sort of humility that reflected in his main characters and kept his stories so character-driven. I’m still so sad at his passing.

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

What a great tribute to a great writer. My Dad was a big fan of Dick Francis’s books and he passed that love on to me. I still have all of Dad’s Dick Francis books. Might need to pull them out and have a good read.

Shattered, Whip Hand, Flying Finish and Rat Race are some of my favorites. And his heroes are the kind of men I love to read about – honorable men who are honorable in spite of their flaws and sometimes because of them.

Another Arthur Conan Doyle fan here, Kim. And I LOVE The Hound of the Baskervilles. How lucky you are to have visited Dartmoor !

Another of my favorite non-romance authors are the writing team of Preston Douglas and Lincoln Child. They write a series of books about a very unusual FBI agent – Agent Pendergast. Still Life with Crows was the first one I read and I have been hooked ever since. They introduced me to some of the oddities of history and their insight into the human condition and the possibilities of what if is amazing.

Amanda McCabe
12 years ago

I haven’t read Francis in years, but I may have to revisit some of his work now! I used to love it, I think my favorite was “Twice Shy.” So sad he’s gone.

I was really looking forward to watching the Dolley Madison episode after seeing an ad for it last night (after “The 39 Steps,” which was great!), only to find out my local PBS station won’t show it because they’re starting their fundraising month (which means they take off their regular shows and out on weird things no one wants to watch). Booo!!!

12 years ago

Amanda! I watched “39 Steps” last night, too! It was great! And we’re also moving into the “pledge drive.” They advertised Sharpe’s Challenge, with Sean Bean, as being on Masterpiece Theatre, next time, but when is next time, now? Sigh.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Jane George, I forgot about Kit Fielding! There was so much more I could have said about Dick Francis, including his devotion to his wife.

Allison, you describe him just how I remember him.

Louisa, most of the Dick Francis books I read came from the library and I can’t remember where I put the one he signed. How lovely for you to have your Dad’s copies.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Amanda and Judy, I am not watching Dolley Madison tonight because of revisions, but I did watch The 39 Steps last night. I’m so glad I put it on the DVR (and Dolley Madison, too).

I LOVED The 39 Steps!!!!! I rarely fall for a blond hero but Rupert Penry-Jones is HAWT.

12 years ago

Kit was my favorite as well.

And my first introduction to Rupert Penry-Jones was on PBS in the series MI-5. Love PBS. 🙂

Hope the revisions are going well!

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Late as usual. I used to love Dick Francis’s novels too, although I haven’t read them in years. Maybe I should revisit… Weren’t his most recent ones written by his wife or son or am I thinking of someone else?

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Dick Francis’s wife helped with the research and edited the manuscripts. After she died in 2000, his son helped in those ways.
From what I’ve read, Francis always considered his wife a co-author.

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