It was with regret that I learned in February 2010 that the great story teller Dick Francis had died, aged 89. Francis wrote the kind of crime story that takes an ordinary person and throws them in a situation involving criminal activity. All had something to do with horse racing, a reflection of the fact that Francis had once been a champion jockey. A few of the books featured Syd Halley, jockey turned private detective, but by far the majority had as their hero someone normally quite unconnected with crime and its detection. Most of the stories were clever, and gave fascinating insights into varied aspects of the world of horse racing.
But one of the main mysteries was just how much of the regular flow of a book every year Francis himself was responsible for. It was openly acknowledged that his wife did the research for the books, but did she do more that that? After she died in 2000, no further titles were forthcoming for six years. Since then there has been one recycling the Syd Halley character, Under Orders (2006) and then three which included Francis’s son, Felix, as joint writer: Dead Heat (2007), Silks (2008) and Even Money (2009). A final joint book, Crossfire, will be published in 2010. Now that Dick Francis is dead, it seems that Felix Francis will continue to produce the Francis product alone.
This further exploitation of a well known brand is nothing new – the various James Bond stories that have appeared since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964 attest to this.
But isn’t this turning a book into nothing but a commodity? Can someone else really capture the vividness of detail that made the Francis books so distinctive? I think that the later Dick Francis stories were already beginning to get a bit tired. I find the new ones by Felix to be quite formulaic and completely lacking in the verve of his father’s work (or possibly his mother’s, as well as his father’s work).
No doubt the crime story reading public will make their judgement, but for me, there’s something of the uniformity and blandness of the Big Mac about the new books. If you want my advice, read the earlier ones. Some of my favourites are Nerve, Odds Against, Forfeit, Enquiry, Reflex, Banker, The Danger and Straight.
A tribute to Dick Francis from the New York Times can be found here.
The Dick Francis website is here.
What do you think of the new Dick Francis stories?