Dick Francis, Grand Master of Mystery

A few weeks ago, while unpacking my fiction library in the new house, I came across my cherished collection of Dick Francis novels.  Although normally I leave empty spaces on the bookshelves for new titles to come, I sadly filled the Francis shelf completely.  An era is over, I thought.  There will be no more of his thick hardcovers with the bold colors and distinctive graphics.

I didn’t know, you see, that Mr. Francis and his son had collaborated on CROSSFIRE, which hit stores in late August.  So it was a lovely surprise to discover that I had one more chance to read a new, albeit posthumous, offering by the grand master of mystery.

In 1983, I had never heard of Dick Francis.  I was working as a clerk at a small private college and on a whim signed up for a class on mysteries.  ODDS AGAINST was the first assigned novel on our reading list.  I remember sitting in my car for my lunch break on a pleasant September day, eating my tuna fish sandwich and reading the opening paragraph about Sid Halley getting shot.

I was galvanized.  I was hooked.  I could barely put the book down in time to return to work.  That night, I galloped through the rest of the story.  It still resonates with me to this day, and I use it as an example of plotting and characterization in my writing classes.  Of course, I sought out the rest of Francis’s novels, devouring them all, and then year after year I eagerly awaited the new one.

His skill, his choice of words, his voice, his characters drawn with such achingly fine perception and nuance, his tight, lean prose … all packaged with horses and the high drama that surrounds race tracks … wow! For Dick Francis to have written book after book, year after year, with such quality is an outstanding achievement.  Of course not all the books are equal.  In the 1990s, Francis responded to public opinion or publisher pressure in a couple of ways:  he lessened the violence level and delved more deeply into characterization.  The books got longer.  They lost some of that lean, swift pacing and linear plotting and gave us glimpses into other professions less connected to the track.  I have my favorites like anyone else, and there are ones that I haven’t much cared for.  Yet any time I’ve gone back and reread the latter, I’ve found a solid, well-crafted story that I usually liked better the second time around.  To have a favorite author who can be reread many times, with pleasure and discovery, is a luxury indeed.

The recent collaborations with son Felix are welcome.  They aren’t as smooth perhaps as when Mrs. Francis was an unsung assistant.  They do mark a return in violence level more similar to the early works.  Now and then the phrasing of a sentence or paragraph is definitely Felix and not Dick.  Still, if Felix decides to continue writing, I will give him a chance.  I hope he can continue his father’s admirable legacy.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave empty space on my bookshelf, just in case.

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