Dick Francis

Longshot cover art, G.P. Putnam's Sons hardcover edition

Overview

The standard history of Dick Francis must mention that this Grand Master mystery writer officially began his sporting career after WW2 as an amateur jockey and retired in 1957 as the preferred jockey of the Queen Mum. In 1956 he came heart-breakingly close to winning the Grand National. Upon retirement at the age of 36 he turned his attention to writing, beginning as the racing correspondent for a British daily. He released his first mystery novel in 1962 and turned out about one a year for almost four decades. Our handy-dandy Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. informs me that Francis' novels, long popular in England, became so in the U.S. after a 1980 television series based on his 1965 novel Odds Against.

As stated above, Francis churned out novels at a one per year pace starting in 1962. However, about 3 weeks after the release of Shattered in 2000, Dick's wife Mary died of a heart attack at the couple's home in the Cayman Islands. Her death had a major impact on Dick's writing since she did a large part of the research and editing of the novels. Indeed, Dick Francis - A Racing Life, an unauthorized biography written by Graham Lord, alleged that she was the sole author. Lord has built a specialty of sorts with unauthorized biographies of British authors, with works on John Mortimer (author of the Rumpole books) and Alf Wight (aka country vet James Herriot). Fans of the authors are usually quick to condem Lord's bios with allegations of shoddy research and a muckracking agenda. In any case, no Dick Francis books came out for 6 years following Mary's death until, in September of 2006, Under Orders was released. Wikipedia informs me that Dick's son Felix has taken over Mary's duties as research assistant. Perusing the reviews on amazon.com for the book shows that readers are in two camps: either you love it and are so happy that Dick Francis has returned or you hate it and implicitly agree with Graham Lord.
Dead Heat was released in 2007 and included Felix as an official co-author. This practice is continued for subsequent novels.

Francis' mysteries take place against a horse racing background and I suppose that initially I shied away from his books because of this. After all, I figured, how many times can you read about some jockey who is forced by circumstances to be an amateur private eye? Luckily, however, I was wrong in my assumptions. While some of the novels (particularly the early ones) do have jockeys moonlighting as mystery solvers, many have lead characters who are involved with racing via more indirect capacities. In Reflex the hero is a photographer who shoots pictures of the racing life, in Driving Force the hero owns a horse transport firm, in Wild Horses the protagonist is a director of a film loosely based on a racing scandal and so on. Granted, some of these heroes are ex-jockeys, but that adds to the realism. There are two sequences of novels with recurring characters: the Sid Halley series (Under Orders, Odds Against, Whip Hand & Come To Grief) about a jockey turned full-time private eye and the consecutive novels which feature Kit Fielding (Break In & Bolt). Regardless of the particulars, most Dick Francis novels consist of a first person account of some criminal matter linked to horse racing. The protagonist is always brave, sensible and calm in the face of danger.

With such constancy of characterization, Dick Francis novels might run the risk of becoming boring after you've read three or four. After all, you know that the narrator, after getting in a couple of sticky situations, is going to have everything solved by the end of the book. And the mysteries aren't head-scratching, body-in-a-locked-room affairs either. But what saves the typical DF book is the fact that you're being introduced to a new environment. Part of the fun of reading Dick Francis is that often one is introduced to a new profession. Forget about the mystery; it's entertaining to peek inside the new world and learn a little something about banking or film making or British politics. For amusement, try reading Smokescreen and Wild Horses back to back; one has an actor as the leading man while the other has a director.

In addition to the 39 novels, Francis also has written his autobiography The Sport of Queens and a biography of jockey Lester Piggot A Jockey's Life. The latter is also available as Lester: The Official Biography. Field of 13, a collection of short stories (five written for the book), came out in 1998. - wej

This page is part of the Dick Francis WebRing, a collection of about a dozen sites. Use the icon at the bottom of this page to navigate to the other sites in the ring.


When reading the reviews, please keep in mind that I am not obsessed by DF: I don't participate in weekly chats about his novels, if in England I wouldn't bother to visit the settings for the books, etc. Being a tad more distant than others who have read all his books (and set up a web page!) means that I might not know some piece of trivia. On the other hand, I believe that my distance allows me to judge fairly and not hesitate in pointing out DF's failings.

The novels are rated relative to each other on a scale of one to five horses.
A one horse rating (i.e., ) indicates the novel is in the lower 20% of DF's output (in my opinion) and a five horse rating indicates one of DF's best.

Note that the reviews and ratings are only for DF's solo work. The novels he has officially co-written with his son Felix are listed but not reviewed.
Novel 1st Publication
Date
Plot Review
Dead Heat
2007 Chef Max Moreton has some problems. Many guests at a dinner he has catered are stricken with food poisoning. His next gig, a racetrack luncheon, is ripped by a bomb that kills many guests. Are the events connected? Of course they are, but only Max can prove it. co-authored with Felix Francis
Under Orders
2006 Sid Halley is back (making it the 4th time DF has written about the one-handed investigator) and he's investigating the murder of a jockey, the possible fixing of races and the workings of an internet gambling site. Could it all be related? Aaah, well at least it's better than Shattered. Sid has a new girlfriend and now the bad guys can threaten her instead of him but other than that it's all much the same: Sid snoops around, is chummy with his ex-father-in-law, gets into a precarious situation or two and eventually triumphs. Francis is again weak when delving into tecnological matters (why would anyone suspect an internet gambling site of fixing races when it's making money hand over fist running a legitimate business?) but overall it's an average novel. I guess I'm in the middle of the two camps mentioned in my introduction to this page; I don't hate it but am not overly excited either.
Shattered
2000 Successful glass blower Gerard Logan is friends with jockey Martin Stukely. Martin indirectly gives Gerard a videotape that becomes the object of an intensive search by a gang of bad guys. Gerard has to deal with the ruffians on his own because Martin has been killed in a racing accident. Gerard receives help from some unlikely quarters as he attempts to determine why the tape is so important. This probably will be the last DF novel (note, this was written in 2001) so it's disappointing that Shattered is a less than average story. There are holes in the plot large enough to ride a horse through (e.g., would the information that makes the videotape so valuable really be put on a videotape?), the primary villains are cartoonish and there are many instances in which we are asked to believe that glass blowing is so damn fascinating to all the secondary characters (see Proof for another example of the overemphasis of a character's profession). On the other hand, Shattered is not the absolute dud I was expecting based on DF's preceeding novel, the terrible Second Wind. There are some good descriptions of the glass blowing process and we do get a sense of the mind of an artist who must also be a businessman. So, a lukewarm endorsement will have to do for this latest (and last?) Dick Francis novel.
Second Wind
1999 TV weatherman Perry Stuart is near the top of his profession and is the prognosticator of choice for many trainers in the racing community. A colleague offers him the chance to take part in a hurricane chasing expedition in a small airplane. What Perry discovers on a mysterious island in the aftermath of the storm may well prove to be more dangerous than anything Mother Nature can toss at him. A major disappointment. This novel is full of hastily sketched characters and preposterous situations. The bad guys turn out to be involved in some international intrigues and, as the plot developed, I kept expecting to see SMERSH or SPECTRE enter the scene. This book's link to racing is tenuous at best and it relies too heavily on aviation (Francis' other great love) techno-babble. Coincidentally (?), the heroes of Second Wind and the almost-as-weak Twice Shy are physicists by training. As is Dick Francis' son Felix. I'll leave the Freudian analysis to others.
10lb Penalty
1997 Seventeen year old Benedict Juliard is enlisted into the campaign efforts of his father as he contests a Parliamentary seat. Ben gets to know his father as they battle political opponents and avoid the occasional murder attempt. This is a very understated novel that has little to do with racing of the equine variety. Instead, the emphasis is on election techniques at the basic level: door-to-door canvassing, town hall debates and rubber chicken dinners. The obligatory horse connections come via Ben's efforts as an amateur jockey but the central mystery centers on who is trying to kill Ben's father. The plot proceeds with a noticeable lack of urgency; things proceed at their own pace and no one ever appears too excited. Despite this dearth of energy, 10lb Penalty is a better than average effort by Francis.
To The Hilt
1996 About an hour after Al Kinloch learns that his stepfather has suffered a debilitating heart attack, he is pummeled by thugs who then ransack his spartan hut on a remote Scottish mountain. Kinloch, the black sheep of an extended family headed by his uncle the Earl, paints pictures for a living and quite enjoys his remote way of life. But millions of pounds have been stolen from his stepfather's business, forcing Al's return to civilization. Attempting to save the business from its creditors, Al must confront a jealous family member and suspicious business associates while dodging assorted violent efforts. As in In The Frame, the hero this time is an artist and Francis describes the heartache and soul searching that goes into the creation of a portrait. Luckily for us, To The Hilt's plot is more believable than in the previous work. The link to horses comes into play as Al attempts to hide both his stepfather's horse and a valuable trophy. But the emphasis is on relationships and family honor - between Al and his stepfather, between Al and his technically-still-wife, between Al and his obsessive step-sister. While it doesn't have a strong horsey element, To The Hilt is an interesting novel that offers some insight into the artist's spirit and the problems of modern day nobility.
Come To Grief
1995 This third novel to feature one-handed private investigator Sid Halley focuses on the fallout that affects Sid after he accuses his friend (and television personality) Ellis Quint of a heinous crime. Through flashbacks, we learn of the series of events that force Sid to conclude that his friend has an ugly hidden side. Despite the evidence, however, Quint seems likely to get off. Likely, that is, unless Sid can determine why an unseen power is so anxious to have Quint judged innocent at Halley's expense. I've never been as enthralled by Sid Halley as other DF fans seem to be; while he's an interesting character for a book, by the third one I'm getting a little tired of his worrying that he'll lose his good hand (and, not coincidentally, I'm tired of villains who love to torture the good hand). I suppose that such tactics are instructive for the reader who has not read the two previous works (Odds Against being Sid's debut, followed by Whip Hand). That said, Come To Grief is an average effort for Francis with the flashbacks that take up the first half of the book proving superior to the sometimes stretched plot twists that follow.
Wild Horses
1994 Film director Thomas Lyon is shooting a movie loosely based on a 26 year old racing scandal when he accidentally learns of a secret that leads him into the mysteries of the past. Lyon tries to learn the truth about the scandal while juggling production hassles and a temperamental screenwriter. Francis pens some of his most purple prose in this one, with descriptions of wild horses running on a beach, dream sequences of mystery lovers and a continuously shot courtroom scene all allegedly causing mouths to fall open in awe. The depiction of life on a film set is technically believable; we learn as much as we want to about camera angles, lighting and lenses. But the complaining screenwriter scenario is implausible and the motivation behind villainous efforts to thwart Lyons is the old "let's try to scare off the movie maker and thus call attention to a 26 year old scandal". All the pluses and minuses sum up to an average Francis effort.
Decider
1993 Architect/contractor Lee Morris gets sucked into the intra-family warfare concerning a race course. Navigating the turbulent family waters is complicated by the fact that he is connected by marriage to the combatants. Simultaneous with working on the course facility and determining who is willing to kill in order to close the course, Morris must also make some major decisions about the direction of his personal life. My favorite Francis novel, primarily because we get immersed in a complex character. Parents of six sons, Morris and his wife stay together primarily for convenience & Morris does a fair amount of thinking about that. Perhaps Francis' most brooding work, Decider deals with tough issues of love, lust, parental responsibility and, dare I say it, the meaning of life. No dummy, Morris fully realizes that no matter how he raises his children, their personalities and fates are beyond his control. Yes, there're some nefarious goings on as well, with Morris narrowly evading death a couple of times, but ultimately the value of Decider lies in its examination of a human life and the choices that are presented to it.
Driving Force
1992 Ex-jockey Freddie Croft owns a fleet of vans that transports race horses across the British Isles and the Continent. Two of his drivers pick up a hitchhiker who ends up dying in the truck. It quickly becomes apparent that the hitcher wasn't quite what he seemed; Freddie must then figure out what is going on before he suffers the same fate as the hitchhiker. I got lucky in this, the first Dick Francis book I ever read. In terms of mystery it's probably Francis' best. Croft discovers that his vans are being used for smuggling purposes but the contraband is unknown. Clues are scattered throughout but only the most alert reader will have it all figured out before the finale. Local color is added via the use of a character's rhyming cockney slang (e.g., "what's the boil" translates into "what's the trouble" by way of boil and bubble). Francis doesn't ignore the human factor either; Freddie Croft and the rest of the cast are multi-dimensional. The aspirations and failings of all involved are believable and make for an intelligent read.
Comeback
1991 Up and coming diplomat Peter Darwin takes a vacation back home in merry ole England. He is quickly entangled in an expanding scandal centering on a veterinary surgeon's practice gone bad. Peter finds that it's a short step from race horses dying on the operating table to the loss of human life and he must call upon childhood memories to assist him in determining who wants to drive the vet out of business. Once you achieve the appropriate "suspension of disbelief" Comeback is a strong novel with a nice mix of mysterious motives and entertaining characters. The suspension part is necessary because the whole story line is so dependent on Peter recalling bits and pieces from his past; you expect me to believe that this guy and his memories appear at just the crucial moments to foil the plot? O.K., I'll suspend. On the plus side Peter does have a pickup line which works 100% of the time (o.k., he uses it once): "How about a bonk, then?"
Longshot
1990 John Kendall is an author of travel/survival guides who aspires to be a novelist. Needing money to pay the bills, he agrees to write the biography of a racehorse trainer. Of course there are skeletons in the family closet and as Kendall begins to uncover them he must utilize his survival skills to the fullest. The happenings in Longshot are all rather slick: Kendall immediately makes use of his survival skills in the aftermath of an auto accident, he easily slides into the role of family cook and novice rider, he is consulted by the police for his opinions on a murder and so forth. Despite all that, Longshot is an above-average Francis novel owing to the natural way that the mystery (focusing on the disappearance and murder of a female stable "lad") unfolds. There's enough behind-the-scenes coverage of racing and the training profession to keep horse enthusiasts entertained and the eventual resolution of the crime is believable enough to keep mystery lovers satisfied as well.
Straight
1989 Two days after breaking an ankle, steeplechase jockey Derek Franklin is informed that his older brother Greville has been critically injured in an accident. When Greville dies without ever regaining consciousness, Derek finds that he must (temporarily) take over his semiprecious stone importing business. Derek soon finds that among the facets of his late brother's life are a couple of race horses, a mistress and a habit of keeping as much as possible secret. Oh, and about a million and a half dollars of missing diamonds. Classic Francis. There's the immersion into another profession, there's a logical mystery, there's some racing thrown in and there's even a bit of reflective melancholy as Derek grieves for the brother that he never really knew. The only weak point could've been with Greville's fascination for electronic gadgets such as the forerunner of today's PDAs; Francis sometimes becomes over-enthusiastic over items that should be background filler. However, in this case the fascination with gadgets doesn't seem forced but actually advances the story line.
The Edge
1988 Tor Kelsey works undercover for the British Jockey Club's security branch. He's on the trial of Julius Filmer, a villain who uses blackmail and intimidation to acquire ownership of racing horses. Following Filmer onto The Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train, a trans-Canada junket for horse owners, Tor must prevent further trouble while working against a backdrop of an extended dinner theater mystery. When I first started reading this I was thinking that I would be reminded of Murder On The Orient Express. Not the case; although there's a bunch of rich people on a train the focus isn't on any locked-door mystery, it's on....what exactly? There's not a lot of dramatic tension between undercover op Kelsey and bad guy Filmer, chiefly because Filmer isn't even aware of Kelsey's existance. For the most part Kelsey is in an observer mode and for the most part Filmer doesn't do too much. True to life but not exciting reading.
Hot Money
1987 On the day he quits his job as an assistant trainer, amateur jockey Ian Pembroke gets a call from his estranged father Malcolm. Malcolm is immensely rich and he thinks somebody is trying to bump him off. The police aren't of the same opinion; since Malcolm remains a top suspect in the murder of his fifth wife the coppers think Malcolm is making it all up. It doesn't take long for Ian to come round to his father's way of thinking and he then takes on the role of bodyguard while trying to figure out which member of the extended family is a murderer. DF brought his version of "who shot J.R.?" to the printed page 6 years after the television series posed the question. With ex-wifes, assorted offspring and in-laws all in the picture there is not a shortage of suspects. There's a small table itemizing the Pembroke clan at the beginning of the novel but typical readers won't have the inclination to refer to it; most readers will let the offspring become a blur of miserable adults whining about not having enough income from their trust funds (except for non-whining Ian, of course). It's all satisfactory enough, I suppose, but it would have been nice to have a couple of sharp, nasty suspects in the mix.
Bolt
1986 Kit Fielding returns in this story of an extortionist who is turning the screws on Princess Casilia's family. The princess, in addition to owning the champion horses that Kit rides, is the aunt of Kit's main squeeze Danielle. While battling the extortionist Kit finds himself allied with his chief rival for Danielle's affections. This followup to Break In is a weaker effort focusing on Kit's relationship with Danielle rather than any sort of intricate mystery. We know who the bad guy is from the beginning and there are no great surprises in store as the bad guy does his evil bit and Kit eventually saves the day. The majority of the novel I was wondering exactly what Kit and Danielle see in each other; Danielle's interests are much more in line with those of Prince Litsi (the rival) and Kit seems to be a sap (but a noble sap, of course). It would have been more interesting if Kit had another option on the romance front as well; then DF could've ended Bolt with a cat fight or something.
Break In
1985 Champion jockey Kit Fielding is almost telepathically close to his twin sister Holly. So he naturally agrees to help out when she asks for his assistance in determining who is out to disgrace her racehorse trainer husband Bobby Allardeck; it seems someone has been planting stories in gossip columns. However, it turns out that there's more than just a little rumor spreading afoot and Kit must be careful to keep his name out of the obituary column. You get the feeling that, of all the Dick Francis heroes, Kit Fielding is the one he'd most like to be. Certainly he (Kit) has it all going on: he's at the peak of his profession, able to gain the confidence and respect of all (all except for the bad guys, of course) and starts a relationship with a beautiful and intelligent woman. There's even the legacy of an age-old quarrel to spice things up: the Fieldings and Allardecks have been at each other's throats with a ferocity that puts the Montague-Capulet thing to shame. No wonder that Francis immediately penned a sequel. Break In is also strong in its racing scenes; if there had been a little bit more thought to the plot then this one would be among DF's very best. As is, it's pretty damn good.
Proof
1984 Wine merchant & caterer Tony Beach is present at an outdoor gala when an 'accident' takes the lives of many guests including a horse owning Arab Sheik. And thus begins Tony's envelopment in a case of counterfeit liquors and murder. Once in a while DF goes overboard with the whole "let's look behind the scenes of a specialized profession" thing. The danger in his approach lies in the over-emphasis of the profession and its place in the world. In the case of Proof we are asked to believe that the troubles of the world would just go away if we all had a bottle of a good Rioja. The blurbs on the cover of the Fawcett Crest edition that I read lead me to suspect that the copywriters were swilling too much of the vino themselves: "Fake scotch and foul murder test the strength of one man's spirit"!! Oh well, reading this one was a little bit educational since DF does discuss the origin of the term "proof"...
The Danger
1983 Andrew Douglas, a specialist in kidnap negotiations, watches helplessly as local cops bungle the ransom drop in a case involving a female Italian jockey. Working behind the scenes, Douglas strives to keep the girl safe while assisting her family in dealing with the stressful situation. After the Italian kidnapping is resolved, Douglas becomes involved in other cases and a pattern emerges: the mastermind behind the kidnappings is cool, logical and linked to the racing world. It's up to Douglas and his colleagues to stop him. Upon my first reading of The Danger I thought it an average Francis effort but a second reading led to my opinion being revised downward. I didn't mind very much during either reading that narrator Douglas is rather briefly sketched, leading to a lack of empathy on the part of the reader. But on the second reading I started noticing (and was bothered by) Douglas' lack of professionalism, chiefly in his establishing a post-rescue romance with a kidnapee. Stereotypical supporting characters such as the ex-SAS man who is Andrew's colleague also get to be annoying. Although The Danger predates it by some six years, a comparison with Frederick Forsyth's The Negotiator is inevitable; Francis comes out the loser in that contest.
Banker
1982 A merchant banker on his way up the corporate ladder, Tim Ekaterin has agreed to lend a lot of money to a horse breeder in order to acquire the prize winning race horse Sandcastle. All starts off well but of course it doesn't stay well.... Banker develops rather slowly over a period of almost three years; with my relatively brief description I've tried to avoid the mistake that the publishers made in giving away plot points that don't occur until late in the novel. Let me just say that the mystery is highly satisfactory, Tim's romantic life takes an unexpected twist or two and you learn a lot about the making of babies. Baby horses, that is...
Twice Shy
1981 This is a dual narrative novel focusing on a computer program that can win bets at the track and the bad guys who want it. Physics teacher (and Olympic marksman) Jonathon Derry is the first narrator; once he is given the program he must determine what it is and then, more importantly, what to do with it. The dual narrations are separated by some fifteen years; this interesting technique is the source of some major problems when reading because the computer technology is not updated at all in the novel (e.g., the program is still being loaded via cassette tapes a dozen years after the PC revolution). Even if this novel were updated I'd still have some problems with it; the bad guys are stereotypes, they're dealt with too easily and the novel's ending is pat. The first part of the novel does foreshadow some of the relationship themes later developed in Decider.
Reflex
1980 Philip Nore's profession is that of a jockey; his hobby is photography. So he turns out to be the only one who can tie together all the loose ends that arise after the death of a racetrack photographer. Seems that the departed had a penchant for blackmail and Philip soon discovers secrets that perhaps should be left hidden. As in Proof DF puts too much emphasis on technical details in this one; the explanation of color mixing (yellow + cyan = green, etc.) made me think a color wheel was lurking on the next page and I eventually just skimmed through whenever techno-babble arose. In this book there is also the added distraction of Philip's search (by request of his hated grandmother) for a sister he never knew he had. Actually, Reflex seems to be a whole collection of distractions in 295 pages - there's not a unifying message or motif behind it all. Which is fairly typical for Francis (and I'm not complaining!) but there was some eyebrow arching when I read the liner notes comparing Reflex to the works of John Le Carré and Graham Greene.
Whip Hand
1979 Sid Halley, the ex-jockey, now private investigator last seen in Odds Against, is now relatively resigned to the fact that he now has an artificial hand. The new electro-plastic mechanism doesn't seem to be slowing him down, either, as he simultaneously takes on cases involving corruption at the highest levels of the Jockey Club, the puzzling performances of a trainer's top horses and a con man's ensnarement of Sid's ex-wife. It's rather unusual that a mystery writer would let so much time lapse between publication of novels centering on the same character. But that's the case with the Sid Halley series; the three novels came out every 15 years or so. So why did DF decide to revisit Sid Halley? A cynic would say that Francis was trying to end a losing streak: 6 of the 7 novels prior to Whip Hand are rated as below average on the reliable horse-o-meter. A romantic would say that DF simply wanted to continue the story of a fascinating character (which begs the question of why he waited a decade and a half). Whatever the reason, Whip Hand is a strong novel that even has a bit of uncharacteristic non-heroic behavior by the narrator. Update, AUG 04 - Thanks to reader Jonathan Sheen who points out that DF brought back Sid because "A British TV network -- I think it was Channel 4, rather then the BBC, ran a TV series called 'The Racing Game' that featured adventures of Sid Halley. Francis was taken by the program, and the actor who played Sid, and that inspired him to write another." This information is apparently in the dedication of Whip Hand.
Trial Run
1978 Randall Drew, ex-amateur steeplechase jockey, is asked by a high ranking royal personage to determine whether a relative should be allowed to compete in the upcoming Moscow Olympics. It seems that the royal relative has gotten mixed up in a potentially embarassing scandal. As a result, a certain Alyosha in Moscow is less than happy and has promised to extract revenge. Drew eventually agrees to go to Moscow to poke around. There're a lot of weak plot elements in Trial Run: Drew seems to be awfully well off for being a farmer, he manages to get information from Russians left and right (this is explained as being part of the "bond of horses") and there is generally a lot of waltzing unimpeded through the streets of Moscow. This book also doesn't have too much of a horse connection; one could make Drew an ex-rower without changing very much of the story. I think what saves this book from being an absolutely horrid effort are the exotic locations (exotic relative to the usual foggy hills of England) and a well thought out solution to the mystery.
Risk
1977 An hour after amateur jockey and professional accountant Roland Britten unexpectedly wins the Cheltanham Gold Cup, he is abducted and held in isolation. Eventually making his escape, Britten must determine why someone wants him out of circulation. Risk is standard Dick Francis fare with a noble hero escaping from sticky situations with body bruised but pride intact, a plot which stretches thin in places but eventually wraps up neatly and the usual love interest. As said, this is nothing special by DF standards but that in itself makes for an entertaining novel.
In The Frame
1976 The hero/narrator this time is Charles Todd; he's a painter whose cousin's wife has just been murdered during a burglary. When Todd comes across another possible burglary he is not suspicious until he learns that both cases had Australian connections. Coincidence? Perhaps, perhaps not...Todd heads to the Land Down Under to figure it all out. This is another one which starts out strongly (the body of the murdered woman is described in clinical details) but eventually bogs down in its own improbabilities. Once in Australia Todd hooks up with an old college chum & the chum's new wife and then they're off on one zany adventure after another. In most mysteries the hero manages a miraculous escape from the bad guys; In The Frame has about two miracles too many.
High Stakes
1975 Steven Scott, a successful inventor of mechanical toys, gives the sack to the trainer of his hurdler Energize. In public Scott is seen as an ungrateful owner uncaring about the little man. The non-public reason for the sacking is that the trainer has been systematically fleecing Steven for years. But the trainer does not go gently into the good night & Steven must enlist new allies in an attempt to recover his horse and honor. Middle of the pack Francis. The hero is cut from the usual cookie cutter mold, the new allies are duly impressed by Scott's resourcefulness and the plot skirts but never descends into unbelievability. Well, there is an element or two that seems rather far-fetched (when the deceived deceive the deceivers, got it?) but that's classic DF - if you don't like it then don't start reading.
Knockdown
1974 Jonah Dereham is an independent bloodstock agent. He is engaged by a rich American woman to buy a horse for the son of her boyfriend. All goes normally until Jonah is attacked after the purchase and forced to relinquish the horse. It turns out that the attack was only the opening salvo in this story of crooked characters in the world of horse purchasing. This novel started out well enough, with the mysterious attack and a selection of interesting characters including Jonah's alcoholic brother, the rich American, her richer intended and his rebellious son. But Knockdown loses steam about halfway through; there's little followup on the interesting characters, the plot becomes a little bit too far-fetched and the novel degenerates into a series of examples of scams. The cover to my paperback edition (published by Pocket) is one of the ugliest and most inappropriate that I've seen of late; it hints at a work by Piers Anthony, not Dick Francis.
Slayride
1973 David Cleveland, Chief Investigator of the Jockey Club (Great Britain), is asked to provide assistance in the case of a British jockey who apparently has made off with the receipts from a Norwegian racecourse. Cleveland finds that more than the local diet is fishy as he delves into a scheme that involves beatings, bombs and murder. I'm not really sure why I don't have Slayride ranked higher. The plot proceeds along well enough, at least until the final fifth or so of the novel. It all sort of falls apart at that point but I already wasn't thrilled by the book. What's the reason for my lack of enthrallment?: not enough racing? stereotypical characters? my heretofore latent hatred of all things Norwegian? Well, maybe it's the title. Obviously the product of some over-eager editor's desire to have a snappy short title that relates somehow to Scandinavian winters, Slayride instead only conjures up images best left to Stephen King.
Smokescreen
1972 Movie actor Edward Lincoln is asked by an old friend to find out why the horses in her South African stable are no longer winning. In the course of his investigation he encounters real life-or-death situations deep inside a gold mine and on the sun-baked South African veldt. Quite by coincidence, I bought and read my copy of this book while waiting for a connecting flight at the international airport in Johannesburg. As a travel guide to South Africa, Smokescreen is quite useful. I quickly learned why, despite my visit in mid-summer, it wasn't terribly hot in Jo-burg (its 6000 ft elevation). And the descriptions of the workings of the gold mine and the workings of a motion picture are well done. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is lacking in both suspense and plausibility. Not to give anything away, but it is difficult to believe that the villain could put Lincoln in all those life-or-death situations. My edition of the novel has a "brand new introduction by the author"; I'm not sure if it was written post-apartheid but Francis uses it to give some background on his 1971 visit to the country and to stress that political matters are not addressed.
Bonecrack
1971 When a serious auto accident sidelines his father, business analyst Neil Griffon is temporarily in charge of the training of some 85 horses including the Derby favorite. Which means that, when a ruthless crime lord decides he wants his son Alessandro to ride on the Derby winner, the best way to achieve such an end is to kidnap Neil & threaten him with the destruction of the stables unless sonny is given the ride. At the beginning of Bonecrack there's a little map of the village in which it takes place; because of it, my first thoughts were that the novel was going to be a whodunit alá Agatha Christie. Note to worry, Bonecrack is simpler than that. The focus is on father-son relationships: the haughty wannabe jockey's love/fear relationship with his crime boss dad, Neil's hate/apathy feelings towards his father & the brother/mentor/father relationship that develops between Alessandro and Neil. Everything that happens is fairly predictable but Bonecrack is highly enjoyable for all that.
Rat Race
1970 Life has kicked pilot Matt Shore around a bit; an acrimonious divorce and a gradual decline in his career have reduced him to living in a trailer and counting every penny. There's no shortage of suspects when Shore and his four race going air taxi passengers narrowly avoid death via a bomb; it's up to Matt to determine who wants whom dead. One of several DF novels with an aviation background, Rat Race takes us behind the scenes of a air taxi service. The depiction of Shore's decidedly non-glamorous life is well done and there's a bunch of other interesting characters (a stereotypical hippie is not so interesting as he goes around looking for some free love). The general outline of the mystery isn't too hard to discern but trying to figure out the details proved to be beyond my capabilties. Overall, Rat Race is a continuation of the above average DF works of the late '60s.
Enquiry
1969 We learn through flashbacks that narrator Kelly Hughes and trainer Dexter Cranfield have just lost their licenses; an enquiry panel was of the opinion that Kelly had held back his odds-on favorite and let another Cranfield-trained horse win. However, there was enough inconsistent behavior exhibited by the panel that Kelly believes he was set up. He then attempts to clear his name and nab a villain. Enquiry works despite the old jockey-turned-sleuth story structure. Perhaps it works because Kelly makes a fair number of mistakes in his investigating; he does not suddenly discover that he's a latent Sam Spade. Enquiry is believable every step of the way, from the feelings of self-blame at the enquiry to the descriptions of the governors of racing to the investigative trail taken by Kelly. So yes, the amateur sleuth story line works out quite well in this case, one of Francis' best.
Forfeit
1968 James Tyrone, sports writer for a Sunday newspaper, hears the drunken confession of fellow writer Burt Chekov: Chekov has apparently been writing his column according to the dictates of a blackmailer. Burt dies an "accidental" death shortly afterwards. Tyrone quickly determines that Chekov's column was being used as part of a betting swindle. As he leads his paper's effort to stop the swindlers, the married Tyrone must also wrestle with his own conscience as he pursues an affair. There are two aspects of Forfeit that lead to it being one of the top Francis novels I have read: a plausible storyline linked to racing and a narrator with more to offer than the usual oh-so-noble Francis hero. A racing-related plot is, of course, a requirement for a superior Francis effort. But the multi-faceted James Tyrone is a definite (and welcome) change of pace. Although his motivations are different, Tyrone's infidelity has its counterpart in a few other Francis novels such as Decider and Twice Shy. But the actions in Forfeit are on another level entirely; there's even a sex scene! Sex in a Dick Francis novel? Oh yeah, it was the 60s, man......
Blood Sport
1967 Enter Gene Hawkins, suicidal spy catcher who is asked to track down a missing horse. After initially refusing the request, Gene changes his mind after he foils a murder attempt directed against the horse's owner. The search leads to the U.S. and Gene soon learns that certain types of outlaws are still on the loose in the Wild, Wild West. Why does Gene sleep with a Luger under his pillow? To defend himself against enemies or to provide a daily test of his will to live? What started Gene on the road to depression - was Gene's pregnant wife killed by a drunk driver?, was Gene's only child kidnapped as an infant & never returned?, was Gene's collection of Picasso drawings damaged by mildew? Nah, it turns out that things didn't work out between Gene and the love of his life. Big deal. There's some mild philosophizing on the meaning of life in Blood Sport; surely a weak plot and a hero that feels all too sorry for himself can't be part of the answer.
Flying Finish
1966 Henry Grey has a desk job at a bloodstock agency and rides as an amateur jockey when he can. Sounds like an uncomplicated existence until you learn that he's also a weekend pilot and an earl in waiting. Henry soon gets a new job at a firm that transports horses via air and it doesn't take him long to notice that there's some shady business going on. Was it Chekov who noted that, if a gun is on stage during the first act of a play, it must be fired before the play's conclusion? No matter, the analogy here is that the reader figures out pretty quickly that Henry is going to get into some trouble and he's going to have to fly his way out of it. The plot of Flying Finish is strong enough with a logical explanation behind all the shady business and a realistic level of ruthlessness displayed by the villains. This book was voted as the favorite DF novel in a poll on one of the other sites in the Dick Francis Webring.
Odds Against
1965 Ex-champion jockey Sid Halley is an operative for a detective agency; two years previously he had been in a steeplechase accident that left him with a crippled hand and little desire to get on with his life. Still recovering from a gunshot wound, Sid investigates the hostile takeover of a racecourse. The bad guys are quite willing to use brutal methods and Sid finds himself on the receiving end more often than not. As Odds Against opens narrator Sid Halley is in a hospital bed, recovering from a ".38 slug of lead which made a pepper shaker out of [his] intestines" and "left [him] with fire in [his] belly in more ways than one." Thankfully, that's about it for the Mickey Spillane and the majority of the book is spent following Sid's slow return to a state of self-respect. The plot line is well-thought out and the comic-book depiction of evil characters is forgiveable (although we do get started on the old "let's torture Sid by stomping around on his hand" routine that gets tiresome by the 3rd Halley book, Come To Grief).
For Kicks
1965 Daniel Roke, a young owner of an Australian stud farm, agrees to go undercover in England and investigate a horse-doping scandal. Although the monetary rewards are great, Daniel's motivations for accepting the task lie mostly in his feelings of confinement brought on by his many responsibilities. Once in England Daniel must overcome his natural instincts and portray an unsavory stable lad who is open to underhanded offers. One of Francis' best. The mystery is first rate and Francis' depiction of the working lives of the stable lads rings with authenticity. Although not its focus, For Kicks has a straight forward treatment of sex that I found surprising (considering when it was written). Incidentally, it wasn't until two days after I had finished the book that I figured out the meaning of the cover of my paperback edition (published under the Fawcett Crest banner). A good thing too, since the cover gives away the mystery.
Nerve
1964 It's tough to be a jockey: you might shoot yourself on the racecourse, you might have your career ruined because of allegations of passing on insider information, you might get a reputation for habitual tardiness, you might be thought of as someone who has lost his nerve due to an accident..... But it's all part of the racing game, isn't it? I mean, there couldn't be a conspiracy afoot, could there? Rob Finn, the nervous one, figures it all out. Francis' second novel has the same basic themes as the first: clear-headed jockey forced to turn detective, the love interest who resists his advances, an evil presence that's behind seemingly unrelated incidents. But the plot is a little bit less believeable this time and the romance is, to my innocent eyes, positively creepy (Rob has the hots for his first cousin). If Dick Francis had continued down this road then he'd be regarded as a hack. Lucky for us, Francis soon figured out how to transcend such formulaic writing.
Dead Cert
1962 Amateur steeplechaser Alan York watches as best friend and top jockey Bill Davidson takes a fatal fall while riding Admiral, the "best hunter 'chaser in the kingdom." York quickly determines that, while murder may not have been the objective, the fall was no accident. As Alan proceeds to investigate his life is complicated by his desires for the beautiful owner of one of his rides. As I write this it is nearly 40 years after Dead Cert first came out. Which means it is all too easy to point out its flaws, from the evil mastermind behind the scenes (no, he's not called "Mr. Big" but he should be) to York's irritating puppy love for the female lead to the improbable ending (there are about three endings to this one, with numbers 2 & 3 being the ones that caused some eyebrow arching). Still, the word which should be employed in describing Dead Cert is competent; Francis did produce a readable story with interesting characters and the end result is that Dead Cert started off a very successful mystery writing career.

Dick Francis Web Ring


last revised 27 APR 07