The Sport of Kings? It's the Knaves That Ex-jockey Dick Francis Writes Thrillers About
Dick Francis’ heroes are stoics, and invariably they are called upon to prove it. One has his crippled hand smashed with a poker. Another is pummeled with a chair leg. A third is hanged by his wrists in a tack room. All of this literary gore comes from a mild-mannered former steeplechase jockey in Great Britain who has just turned out the 14th in a series of crisply written thrillers.
Francis’ personal catalogue of racing injuries reads like the casualties from a train wreck—10 concussions, 12 broken collarbones, a fractured skull, five broken noses and a smattering of cracked and bruised ribs. “After the first time you’re hurt, you don’t worry,” Francis says, in words worthy of his heroes. “You just strap up and keep riding.”
A Dick Francis novel offers a marvelously darkened world of racetrack thugs, high society, alcoholic bookies and dangerously attractive women. It is a world the author was born to.
Son of a Welsh horse dealer, Francis wanted from childhood to be a jockey. “Give him gin, keep him small,” friends urged his mother, but by 15 Dick was getting too big for anything but steeplechasing. No matter, he recalls. “I wanted to jump.”
He quit school, spent six years in the RAF during World War II and got down to racing seriously in 1945. Eight years later he was England’s champion jockey. Ignominy struck in the 1956 Grand National, however. The Queen Mother’s entry, Devon Loch, was romping home 10 lengths ahead of the field when it collapsed 50 yards from the finish with Francis aboard. Ten months later, beginning to tire of black and blue as his colors, Francis turned from riding to writing.
Starting as a turf columnist for London’s Sunday Express, the wiry little Welshman (5’8″, 155 pounds, 15 above his racing weight) soon found his fancy turning to mysteries. Journalism was barely paying the bills, and the racing world simmered with intrigue. Besides, he had read Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie; he was sure he could write thrillers himself.
Beginning with Dead Cert in 1962, he has been producing nearly one a year ever since. His books have sold more than five million copies worldwide and brought him enviable critical garlands. His latest entry, High Stakes, was published in the U.S. last month by Harper & Row, while Pocket Books has been releasing 10 others in paperback. “I am often asked if racing is as crooked as I paint it,” says Francis. “It was at the turn of the century, but not so much now. Still, my books are valid in that something is always going on.”
Francis, 55, and Mary, his wife of 29 years, live in a brick bungalow near the Berkshire village of Blewbury. “His parents said it was a disaster for him to marry someone who knew nothing about horses,” says Mary, an honors graduate of London University. “Mine thought it would be disastrous for me to marry someone with no education. It didn’t matter to us. We just liked being together.”
Aside from running a dress shop and managing the family finances, Mary proofreads her husband’s copy—his spelling isn’t up to his grammar—and researches most of his novels. For Rat Race, a tale of the skullduggery involved in air-shuttling jockeys to race meets, she took up flying herself. The Francises later set up their own charter service and sold the controlling share only last year.
Retreating to his study to write, Francis usually works three or four hours at a stretch, with pencil and eraser, turning out 400 to 1,000 words. He wastes no time on second drafts; his first version goes to the publishers. When the muse is reticent, Francis ducks outside to mow the lawn, prune the roses or edge the flower beds. Writing, he says, is like racing in only one respect. “I rode every horse to win,” he explains, “and I want the whole world to read what I’ve written, because I’ve put everything I’ve got behind it.”
For diversion, Francis fox hunts or takes Mary to London (where they keep a flat) for an evening of theater. He enjoys games (“I beat him at Master Mind because I’m more logical,” says Mary. “He usually wins at cribbage”), but rarely risks a serious bet on the races. “People close to racing tend to look at horses they’re connected with through rose-colored glasses,” Francis says. “I’ve seen so many people go to the wall that way, I’m determined that I won’t. Betting is a bug, and I’m not a lucky gambler.”