America's Best Racing Jockey Club & NTRA Websites October 16, 2012
He’s baack! Well, sort of back.
If it’s early autumn, it must be time for the latest Dick Francis novel. A former spitfire pilot and jockey who ride for the Queen Mum, Francis carved a unique niche in a signature whodunit style with signature suspense and riveting plot twists that earned him some of the most prestigious mystery writer awards.
Trouble is Dick Francis died in 2010. Son Felix picked up the reins when he released his first book in the series, Gamble in 2011. Stoking the family business, the publisher emblazed the words “DICK FRANCIS’s BLOODLINE” at the top of the cover of this year’s release. The racing thriller fits the senior Francis’ formula: a first person narrative, a crime set in the world of high-stakes horseracing-- its reliable intrigue, pots of money and nefarious characters.
It marks the 50-year anniversary of his father’s first novel “Dead Cert” published in 1962. Over the years the mysteries have sold more than 75 million copies and have been translated into 35 languages including Japanese, and most recently Ukrainian and Georgian.
A champion jockey in Great Britain in the 1950s and ‘60s and later an English racing correspondent for sixteen years, the senior Francis lived and breathed the sport. As for Felix, he was an international-class marksman, the leader of expeditions to the Himalayas and the jungles of Borneo and a teacher of A-Level Physics. Felix gave up teaching to manage his father’s business affairs in 1991.
Drawn around quirky and absorbing characters, Dick Francis novels were known for unrelenting suspense and a finely tuned narrative told at a quick pace.
“I grew up in a fiction factory being eight years old when he wrote Dead Cert,” Felix, 59, told the Warwickshire Life, an English magazine.
“The characters, they are as much a part of me as they were of him. The conversation over breakfast wasn’t about who was doing the school run, it was about whether Sid Halley would survive the night with a 38 slug in his guts and blood dripping through a crack in the linoleum floor.”
Felix’s mother Mary was a key component to forging all those thrillers. Her primary role was meticulous research and editor for each novel. She even learned to fly for “Flying Finish” and took up painting for “In the Frame.”
In 2000 Dick and Mary decided to retire. Then that September she died. An unauthorized biography went so far as to claim that Mary wrote most of the former jockey’s novels, but stayed in the shadows since Dick’s name had celebrity power.
Francis emerged from self-imposed six-year retirement in 2006. Felix did the research and helped in plotting of “Under Orders” that resurrected champion-jockey-turned-private eye Sid Halle, a central character from a trio of previous bestsellers. Felix then coauthored four novels with the master before striking out on his own after his father’s death.
In “Bloodline,” the main character, Mark Shillingford, is a race caller and television commentator whose twin sister is a successful jockey. Riding the favorite in a race at Lingfield Park, Clare appears a certain winner but she winds up beaten by a head. Calling the race Mark has the sickening feeling that the fix was in. Clare appeared to lose deliberately.
At a dinner that evening he confronts Clare with his suspicions and she storms off—the last time Mark sees her alive. That evening Clare inexplicably falls from a Hilton hotel 15th floor a hotel balcony. When Mark is informed, he is ridden with guilt and switches into investigator mode. Did she fall, or was she pushed—and what the hell was she doing in the Park Lane section of London late at night in the first place?
The police conclusion: a simple case of suicide. Not so fast. Mark resolves to discover what really happened in the hotel room that evening before the fatal plunge. Suspecting that his sister’s cheating was more extensive than that one race, Mark studies old video images of her recent races and zeros in on a riding technique and pattern that may identify those who wanted her dead to cover up a tangled fraud.
Tracing Clare’s steps and probing her secrets, Mark uncovers a twisted trail of blackmail and betrayal that imperils key players at the highest levels of the racing circuit.
There is mayhem, plenty of mayhem. Mark’s inquiries pit him versus a spiteful racing correspondent that he comes across dying from stab wounds in the racetrack parking lot. Several smarmy trainers and owners are confronted. There is a budding romance for Mark that ends when Emily is rundown (and killed) in yet another parking. The assault lands Mark in the hospital for second time with a punctured lung and fractured ribs. When released he is a bloodhound on the trail of an ingenious serial blackmailer who seems intent on continuing his extortion demands from beyond the grave.
While I found the book a decent read, it left me with a sense of something missing. Rabid fans of the senior Francis’ work will sense the difference in the story telling. Following in a giant’s footsteps can make the follower seem a mere shadow. Perhaps like many racing and mystery fans I am just more attached to Dick’s inventiveness and vitality on display in such gems as “Forfeit" (1968), "Whip Hand" (1979) and "Come to Grief" (1995).
Those thrillers are superbly character driven. The lead character, aka hero, is a calm and quiet chap, often estranged from his father, who avoids confrontation and argument. Steeped in intelligence and goodness he is embroiled in evil machinations within British horse racing society - either directly or indirectly. He is physically attacked early in the novel to show what he is up against, and then bravely challenges the villain again at the climax of the novel. And, Dick's gentlemanly ways always shone through, no matter the story line.
In “Bloodline” there is not the depth of character as from Dick’s pen. Readers may find none of the people in this book were very likable and won’t really care what happens to them. There is also room for improvement in the plot development. An astute editor is a place to start. Still, it is a tale of comfortable familiarity as longstanding fans get their annual Francis Fix. The younger Francis may not have his father’s touch, but perhaps he is gradually getting there.
The plan of Dick Francis succession was forged in 2004. Four years had passed with no thrillers when Felix met with his father’s worried agent.
“He told me: Felix, we have a real problem, there’s a great Dick Francis back list, but the books are dying, no one is reading them because there are no new books, we need a front list,” Flex told the England’s Telegraph newspaper in England.
“He said he had someone in mind who might be able to write a new book “in the style” of Dick Francis, but I thought well, before he asks someone else to do it, I’d like to have a go with my father.”
Then in 2006 “Under Orders” hit the bookshelves, resurrecting the brand. With “Dead Heat” in 2007 and “Silks” in 2008 the Dick Francis suspense novel was back in business with the name of co-author ”Felix Francis” sharing the cover space.
Felix lives in the family home of the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border where he comes up with ideas for each book from chance encounters and experience.
“You get a kernel of an idea and just try to expand on it,” Felix, 59, explained. “It can be from any walk of life. ‘Silks’ came about because I wanted to do one about law. ‘Dead Heat’ was about a chef because it seemed to me every time you turned on the television there were cooking programs on.”
“There are 46 books that have been published in these 50 years and it fills me with pride more than anything. I am proud to carry on his work in these books.
Will Felix succeed in his quest as a first-rate heir to the master thriller?
Louis “Paddy” Neilson of Chester County Pa. is a three-time Maryland Hunt Cup winner, the most prestigious steeplechase race in America. A longtime fan of Francis’ thrillers Neilson joined Francis on a racing panel at the Maryland Hunt Cup seven years ago.
“I guess if a publisher is going to sell under the Dick Francis banner, they’ll do it any way they can,” said Neilson. “They can sneak in a few books, but does the book measure up to the ones in the past? The bottom line is: will the book sell?