Dick Francis

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Dick Francis CBE FRSL
Dick Francis.jpg
Born(1920-10-31)31 October 1920
Lawrenny, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Died14 February 2010(2010-02-14) (aged 89)
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, Caribbean
Nationality British
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
Genre Crime fiction
Notable awards Edgar Award 1967, 1969
Spouse Mary Margaret (née Brenchley; m. 1947–2000); her death
ChildrenMerrick, Felix

Richard Stanley Francis CBE FRSL (31 October 1920 – 14 February 2010) was a British [1] crime writer, and former steeplechase jockey, whose novels centre on horse racing in England.


After wartime service in the RAF, Francis became a full-time jump-jockey, winning over 350 races and becoming champion jockey of the British National Hunt. He came to further prominence in 1956 as jockey to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, riding her horse Devon Loch which fell when close to winning the Grand National. Francis retired from the turf and became a journalist and novelist.

All his novels deal with crime in the horse-racing world, with some of the criminals being outwardly respectable figures. The stories are narrated by one of the main characters, often a jockey, but sometimes a trainer, an owner, a bookie, or someone in a different profession, peripherally linked to racing. This person is always facing great obstacles, often including physical injury, from which he must fight back with determination. More than forty of these novels became international best-sellers.

Personal life

Francis was born in Coedcanlas, Pembrokeshire, Wales. [2] Some sources report his birthplace as the inland town of Lawrenny, but at least two of his obituaries stated his birthplace as the coastal town of Tenby. [3] [4] His autobiography says that he was born at his maternal grandparents' farm at Coedcanlas on the estuary of the River Cleddau, [5] roughly a mile north-west of Lawrenny. His mother had likely returned to her parents' home to give birth, as was a custom. He was the son of a jockey and stable manager [6] and his wife. Francis grew up in Berkshire, England. [7] He left school at 15 without any qualifications, [8] intending to become a jockey; by the time he was 18, in 1938, he also was training horses. [9]

In October 1945, he met Mary Margaret Brenchley (17 June 1924 – 30 September 2000) [8] at a cousin's wedding. In most interviews, they commented that it was love at first sight. (Francis has some of his characters fall similarly in love within moments of meeting, as in the novels Flying Finish, Knockdown, and The Edge.) Their families were not entirely happy with their engagement, but Dick and Mary were married in June 1947 in London. She had earned a degree in English and French from London University at the age of 19, was an assistant stage manager, and later worked as a publisher's reader. She also became a pilot, and her experience of flying contributed to many novels, including Flying Finish, Rat Race, and Second Wind. She contracted polio while pregnant with their first child. (Francis drew from this in his novel Forfeit, which he has said was one of his favorites). They had two sons, Merrick and Felix [8] (born 1953). [10]

In the 1980s, Francis and his wife moved to Florida in the United States. In 1992, they moved to the Cayman Islands, where Mary died of a heart attack in 2000. In 2006, Francis had a heart bypass operation; in 2007 his right leg was amputated. [11] He died of natural causes on 14 February 2010 at his Caribbean home in Grand Cayman, [12] survived by both sons. [13] [14] [15] [16]

Second World War

During the Second World War, Francis volunteered, hoping to join the cavalry. Instead, he served in the Royal Air Force, working as ground crew and later piloting fighter and bomber aircraft, including the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, [8] and the Wellington and Lancaster bombers. [17] Much of his six-year service career was spent in Africa. [2]

Horse racing career

After leaving the RAF in 1946, Francis became a highly successful jockey, reaching celebrity status in the world of British National Hunt racing. [6] He won over 350 races, becoming champion jockey in the 1953–54 season. [6]

Shortly after becoming a professional, he was offered the prestige job of first jockey to Vivian Smith, Lord Bicester. [18] [19]

From 1953 to 1957 Francis was jockey to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. [20] His best remembered moment as a jockey came while riding the Queen Mother's horse, Devon Loch, in the 1956 Grand National, when the horse inexplicably fell when close to winning the race. [21] [22] Decades later, Francis considered losing that race his greatest regret and called it "a disaster of massive proportions". [2]

Francis suffered a number of racing injuries. He was first hospitalized from riding at the age of 12 when a pony fell on him and broke his jaw and nose. [18] He drew from this career resulting in broken bones and damaged organs for his novels, in which many narrators suffer a variety of damaged bodies. In 1957, after Francis suffered another serious fall, the Queen Mother's adviser, Lord Abergavenny, advised him that she wanted him to retire from racing for her.

Contributions to racing

In 1983, the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse in England "stood at the brink of extinction," according to The Philadelphia Inquirer . News reporter Don Clippinger wrote,

"Britain's Jockey Club negotiated a $14 million deal to buy the land and save the race forever. The only problem was that the Jockey Club did not have $14 million, so two prominent racing personalities—Lord Derby and novelist Dick Francis—were selected to raise the money in a worldwide campaign". [23] Other philanthropists, including Charles C. Fenwick Jr., who rode Ben Nevis to victory in the 1980 Grand National, and Paul Mellon, an American breeder and racing enthusiast, also contributed to save the race.

Writing career

Francis wrote more than 40 international best-sellers. His first book was his autobiography The Sport of Queens (1957), for which he was offered the aid of a ghostwriter, which he spurned. [24] The book's success led to his becoming the racing correspondent for London's Sunday Express newspaper, and he continued in that job for 16 years.

He set his first thriller, Dead Cert , published in 1962, in the world of horse racing, establishing a specialized niche for his work. Subsequently he regularly produced a novel a year for the next 38 years, missing only 1998 (during which he published a short-story collection). Although all his books were set against a similar background, his male protagonists held a variety of jobs, including artist ( In the Frame and To the Hilt ), investigator for the Jockey Club (Slay-Ride and The Edge), pilot (Rat Race and Flying Finish), and wine merchant (Proof). All the novels are narrated by the hero, who in the course of the story learns that he is more resourceful, brave, tricky, than he had thought, and usually finds a certain salvation for himself as well as bestowing it on others. Details of other people's occupations fascinated Francis, and he explores the workings of such fields as photography, accountancy, the gemstone trade, and restaurant service on transcontinental trains—but always in the interests of the plot. Dysfunctional families were a subject which he also exploited (Reflex, a baleful grandmother; Hot Money, a multi-millionaire father and serial ex-husband; Decider , the related co-owners of a racecourse).

Francis rarely re-used his lead characters. Only two heroes were used more than once; injured ex-jockey turned one-armed private investigator Sid Halley (Odds Against, Whip Hand , Come to Grief, Under Orders , also in Refusal by Felix Francis after his father's death) and Kit Fielding (Break In and Bolt).

According to a columnist for the Houston Chronicle , Francis "writes believable fairy tales for adults—ones in which the actors are better than we are but are believable enough to make us wonder if indeed we could not one day manage to emulate them." [25]

Writing routine

Francis described a typical year of research and writing to an interviewer in 1989:

In January, he sits down to write, staring down the barrel of a deadline. "My publisher comes over in mid-May to collect the manuscript," he says, "and it's got to be done."
The book's publication takes place in England in September. American publication in past years has been in February, although his next book, Straight, is set to be published in November. Once the manuscript is out of his hands, he takes the summer off, while percolating the plot of his next book. Research on the next book begins in late summer and continues through the autumn, while he's gearing up for his promotional tour for the just-published book. Come January, he sits down to write again.
He doesn't like book tours. He is not one for revelations, major life changes, and intimacies with strange interviewers, and he says he gets tired of answering the same questions again and again.
He shuns the lecture circuit. He'd prefer to let his novels and his sales volume speak for themselves... And though he doesn't love the act of writing a 2287038nd [sic] [and] could easily retire, he finds himself planning his new book as each summer ends.
He says, "Each one, you think to yourself, 'This is the last one,' but then, by September, you're starting again. If you've got money, and you're just having fun, people think you're a useless character."
Or, as independently wealthy Tor Kelsey says in The Edge, explaining why he works for a minuscule salary: "I work... because I like it, I'm not all that bad at what I do, really, and it's useful, and I'm not terribly good at twiddling my thumbs." [26]


Francis collaborated extensively in his fiction with his wife, Mary, until her death. Learning this was a surprise to some readers and reviewers. [11] [27] [28] He credited her with being a great researcher for the novels. In 1981, Don Clippinger interviewed the Francises for The Philadelphia Inquirer and wrote,

"When Dick Francis sits down each January to begin writing another of his popular mystery-adventure novels, it is almost a certain bet that his wife, Mary, has developed a new avocation... For instance, in Rat Race, [the protagonist] operated an air-taxi service that specialized in carrying jockeys, trainers and owners to distant race courses. Before that book came out in 1970, Mrs. Francis obtained a pilot's license and was operating an air-taxi service of her own. Francis' newest novel, Reflex, is built around photography, and sure enough, Mary Francis has become accomplished behind the camera and in the darkroom... And, in their condominium, they have set up the subject of his 20th novel [Twice Shy] – a computer. While he is touring the country, she is working on new computer programs." [29]

According to journalist Mary Amoroso, "Mary does much of the research: She went so far as to learn to fly a plane for Flying Finish. She also edits his manuscripts, and serves as sounding board for plot line and character development. Says Francis, 'At least the research keeps her from going out shopping.'" [26] Francis told interviewers Jean Swanson and Dean James,

Mary and I worked as a team. ... I have often said that I would have been happy to have both our names on the cover. Mary's family always called me Richard due to having another Dick in the family. I am Richard, Mary was Mary, and Dick Francis was the two of us together. [2]

Francis's manager (and co-author of his later books) was his son Felix, who left his post as teacher of A-Level Physics at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire in order to work for his father. Felix was the inspiration behind a leading character, a marksman and physics teacher, in the novel Twice Shy. The older son, Merrick, was a racehorse trainer and later ran his own horse transport business, which inspired the novel Driving Force.

Father and son collaborated on four novels. After his father's death, Felix carried on to publish novels with his father's name in the title (Dick Francis's Gamble (2011), Dick Francis's Bloodline (2012), Dick Francis's Refusal (2013), Dick Francis's Damage (2014), Front Runner: A Dick Francis Novel (2015)), including a return for Sid Halley.


Francis is the only three-time recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for Best Novel, winning for Forfeit in 1970, Whip Hand in 1981, and Come To Grief in 1996. Britain's Crime Writers Association awarded him its Gold Dagger Award for fiction in 1979 and the Cartier Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. He was granted another Lifetime Achievement Award. Tufts University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1991.

In 1996 he was given the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, the highest honour bestowed by the MWA. In 2000, he was granted the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1983 and promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000. [30]

Amoroso wrote in 1989, "And yet he has a keen sense of the evanescence of literary endeavors. 'Whole months of work can be gone in four hours,' he says ruefully. 'People say they can't put my books down, and so they read them in one sitting of four hours.' Francis has been long accustomed to celebrity as a British sports star, but today he is a worldwide phenomenon, having been published in 22 languages. In Australia, he is recognized in restaurants, from his book-jacket picture. He and Mary will see people reading the novels on planes and trains." [26]

Francis was elected in 1999 a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. [31]


Film & TV

His first novel, Dead Cert, was adapted as a film under the same title in 1974. Directed by Tony Richardson, it starred Scott Antony, Judi Dench and Michael Williams. [32] It was adapted again as Favorit (a Soviet made-for-television movie) in 1976. [33]

Francis's protagonist Sid Halley was featured in six TV movies made for the program The Dick Francis Thriller: The Racing Game (1979–1980), starring Mike Gwilym as Halley and Mick Ford as his partner, Chico Barnes. The first of the episodes, Odds Against, used a Francis title; the others were created for the program.

Three TV films of 1989 were adaptations of Bloodsport, In the Frame, and Twice Shy, all starring Ian McShane as protagonist David Cleveland, a character used only once by Francis, in the novel Slay-Ride.

BBC Radio

Video Game

High Stakes was adapted into a text adventure game by Mindscape for MS-DOS and Apple II.


TitleYearISBN of first editionNarrator/Main characterNotes
The Sport of Queens1957autobiography
Dead Cert 1962Alan York, amateur jockeyBasis of the movie Dead Cert (1974)
Nerve 1964Rob Finn, jockeyBasis of the audio drama Breaking Point, starring Michael Kitchen
For Kicks1965Daniel Roke, Australian horse breeder temporarily turned UK investigator
Odds Against1965 ISBN   0-330-10597-3 Sid Halley, private investigator Edgar Award nominee
First Sid Halley novel
Flying Finish1966Henry Grey, groom/heir to earldom, pilotEdgar Award nominee
Blood Sport1967Gene Hawkins, government security agentEdgar Award nominee
Forfeit1968 ISBN   0-425-20191-0 James Tyrone, reporterEdgar Award winner
Enquiry1969Kelly Hughes, jockey
Rat Race1970Matt Shore, former airline pilot now flying charter
Bonecrack1971 ISBN   0-718-10898-1 Neil Griffon, formerly antique dealer, then business consultant, acting as temporary trainer whilst his father is hospitalised
Smokescreen1972 ISBN   0-718-1103-90 Edward Lincoln, movie actor who does his own stunts
Slay Ride1973 ISBN   0-718-11150-8 David Cleveland, Jockey Club chief investigator
Knockdown1974 ISBN   0-718-11297-0 Jonah Dereham, bloodstock agent
High Stakes1975 ISBN   0-718-11393-4 Steven Scott, toy inventor
In the Frame1976 ISBN   0-718-11527-9 Charles Todd, painter
Risk1977 ISBN   0-718-11636-4 Roland Britten, accountant
Trial Run1978Randall Drew, gentleman and ex-jockey
Whip Hand 1979 ISBN   0-718-11845-6 Sid Halley, private investigatorEdgar Award winner, Gold Dagger winner
Reflex1980 ISBN   978-0-7181-1950-8 Philip Nore, jockey and photographer
Twice Shy1981 ISBN   0-718-12056-6 Jonathan Derry, teacher, second part narrated by younger brother William Derry, jockey & later racing managerAdapted into a ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC computer game, published by Mosaic Publishing
Banker1982 ISBN   0-718-12173-2 Tim Ekaterin, merchant banker
The Danger1983Andrew Douglas, anti-kidnapping consultant
Proof1984 ISBN   0-718-12481-2 Tony Beach, wine merchant Japan Adventure Fiction Association Prize winner
Break In1985 ISBN   0-718-12597-5 Kit Fielding, jockey
Bolt1986 ISBN   0-718-12756-0 Kit Fielding, jockey
A Jockey's Life1986 ISBN   0-399-13179-5 / 978-0-399-13179-0 (USA edition)Biography of Lester Piggott, later reissued as Lester
Hot Money1987 ISBN   0-718-12851-6 Ian Pembroke, former asst trainer, amateur jockey
The Edge1988 ISBN   0-718-13179-7 Tor Kelsey, investigator for the Jockey Club
Straight1989 ISBN   0-718-13180-0 Derek Franklin, jockey & later jewelry firm owner
Longshot1990 ISBN   0-718-13447-8 John Kendall, writer and survival skills expert
Comeback1991Peter Darwin, diplomat
Driving Force1992 ISBN   0-718-13482-6 Freddie Croft, horse transport company owner
Decider1993 ISBN   0-718-13602-0 Lee Morris, architect
Wild Horses1994 ISBN   0-718-13603-9 Thomas Lyon, film director
Come to Grief1995 ISBN   0-7181-3753-1 Sid Halley, private investigatorEdgar Award winner, Japan Adventure Fiction Association Prize winner
To the Hilt1996 ISBN   0-718-142136 Alexander Kinloch, painter
10 LB. Penalty1997 ISBN   0-718-14245-4 Ben Juliard, jockey/politician's son
Field of 131998 ISBN   0-718-14351-5 short stories:
  • 1. "Raid at Kingdom Hill" (first appeared in The Times , 1975)
  • 2. "Dead on Red"
  • 3. "Song for Mona"
  • 4. "Bright White Star" (first appeared in Cheshire Life, Christmas 1979)
  • 5. "Collision Course"
  • 6. "Nightmare" (first appeared in The Times, 13 April 1974)
  • 7. "Carrot for a Chestnut" (first appeared in Sports Illustrated, 1970)
  • 8. "The Gift" (first appeared as "A Day of Wine and Roses" in Sports Illustrated, 1973)
  • 9. "Spring Fever" (first appeared in Women's Own magazine, 1980)
  • 10. "Blind Chance" (first appeared as "Twenty-one Good Men and True" in Verdict of Thirteen: A Detection Club Anthology, 1979)
  • 11. "Corkscrew"
  • 12. "The Day of the Losers" (first appeared in Horse and Hound, February 1977)
  • 13. "Haig's Death"
Second Wind1999 ISBN   0-718-14408-2 Perry Stuart, meteorologist
Shattered2000 ISBN   0-718-14453-8 Gerard Logan, glass blower
Under Orders 2006 ISBN   978-0-330-44833-8 Sid Halley, private investigatorJapan Adventure Fiction Association Prize winner
Dead Heat2007 ISBN   978-0-399-15476-8 Max Moreton, chefwith Felix Francis
Silks2008 ISBN   978-0-7181-5457-8 Geoffrey Mason, barristerwith Felix Francis
Even Money2009 ISBN   978-0-399-15591-8 Ned Talbot, bookmakerwith Felix Francis
Crossfire2010US ISBN   978-0-399-15681-6
UK ISBN   978-0-7181-5663-3
Captain Tom Forsyth, military officerwith Felix Francis
Dick Francis's Gamble2011 ISBN   978-1-4104-3870-6 Nicholas "Foxy" Foxton, financial adviserwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis
Dick Francis's Bloodline2012 ISBN   978-1-4104-5223-8 Mark Shillington, racing commentatorwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis
Dick Francis's Refusal2013 ISBN   978-0-3991-6081-3 Sid Halley, former private investigatorwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis
Dick Francis's Damage2014 ISBN   978-0-3991-6822-2 Jeff Hinkley, BHA investigatorwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis
Front Runner: A Dick Francis Novel2015 ISBN   978-1-4059-1522-9 Jeff Hinkley, BHA investigatorwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis
Triple Crown: A Dick Francis Novel2016 ISBN   978-0-3995-7470-2 Jeff Hinkley, BHA investigatorwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis
Pulse: A Dick Francis Novel2017 ISBN   978-0-3995-7474-0 Chris Rankin, Doctorwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis; Dr Rankin is the first female protagonist/narrator in any of the books
Crisis: A Dick Francis Novel2018 ISBN   978-0-5255-3676-5 Harrison Foster, Crisis Managerwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis

See also

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  5. Francis, Dick (1986) [First published 1957, updated 1982]. The Sport of Queens. New York: Penzler Books. p. 14. ISBN   0-445-40331-4. We loved the farm. It was our mother's home, and I was born there.
  6. 1 2 3 Francis, Dick (1999). The Sport of Queens. London: Joseph. ISBN   978-0-330-33902-5. OCLC   59457268.
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Further reading