Cert Dead
February 14, 2010 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Born on Halloween in 1920, died on Valentine's day 2010, Dick Francis wrote many, many, many great mysteries most of which centered on a world he knew well, with the racetrack at its omphalos.

Dick Francis was a champion jockey with 350 wins, but his horse Devon Loch -- the Queen Mother's horse -- collapsed at the Grand National in 1956, and the man never did win the UK's most important race.

From the Guardian article:

For Francis the scars of that day never really healed. He recently said: "The Devon Loch episode is still a terrible memory, even after all these years. I had had a terrific ride for four and a quarter miles on him and he pricked his ears up and I believe that is when the noise of the crowd hit him.

"I've looked at the newsreel time and time again and just as we were approaching the water jump, which he jumped on the first circuit, you see the horse prick his ears and his hindquarters just refused to work."

To "do a Devon Loch" enters the idiom.

Video of the fall. [Warning, horse in pain.]

Finally: .
posted by chavenet (46 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just got a email from friend about this...I very much enjoyed his books.

posted by bjgeiger at 3:29 PM on February 14, 2010

Wow. I worked with him at a horse conformation clinic once (where he also heard a story that later appeared in one of his books, which was pretty cool, since you could see him taking mental notes while he was listening to it) and he was just a lovely man in person. My mum's favourite author, and one of mine too. This is terrible. :(
posted by biscotti at 3:38 PM on February 14, 2010

That's a most peculiar action from the horse.
posted by tellurian at 3:48 PM on February 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Every year, my mother gets the newest Dick Francis book for my father for Christmas.
posted by sperose at 3:49 PM on February 14, 2010

Oh, dammit.

posted by rtha at 3:49 PM on February 14, 2010

Thanks for the nice obit. I have read a lot of his books but didn't know much at all about his history as a jockey, somehow.
posted by jessamyn at 3:50 PM on February 14, 2010

posted by gingerbeer at 4:13 PM on February 14, 2010

[Warning, horse in pain.]

horse survived uninjured, just freaked out.

love Dick Francis.

posted by toodleydoodley at 4:17 PM on February 14, 2010

The very first 'grown up' novel I read was Dick Francis' The Danger. My Mom had brought it with her on our annual three week sailing trip in the San Juan Islands and British Columbia. I spent the rest of the trip scouring the "Leave one, take one" shelves at various yacht clubs and marinas looking for more of his stuff. At 12, it was perfect for me - mysteries, horses and subtle romance. I've read everything he's written over the years. I feel like all the authors I grew up with are starting to pass on - I suppose it's a sign that I'm really an adult. So,

posted by macfly at 4:20 PM on February 14, 2010

He's never translated to the screen very well, but Odds Against, about a champion steeplechase jockey who becomes a detective after a career-ending fall was made into a fairly watchable series.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:26 PM on February 14, 2010

I always enjoyed his books and always learned something from them. I'll miss him.
posted by maurice at 4:34 PM on February 14, 2010

I've always enjoyed his books, and sad that he's joined my father in dying on my birthday.

posted by pjern at 4:53 PM on February 14, 2010

I read many of his books, andlike others above, he was one of my mom's faves. .
posted by Mojojojo at 4:54 PM on February 14, 2010

I never read a Dick Francis book I didn't like (and that's a whole hell of a lot more than I can say about many prolific writers).

posted by MikeMc at 5:11 PM on February 14, 2010

Two years ago, the Telegraph made a serious blunder in leaving Dick Francis off their list of 50 Crime Writers to Read Before you Die. But Francis was vastly underappreciated as a writer -- his quiet, easy, natural style never called attention to itself and his ability to develop a solid, appealing narrative voice was so exceptional that you were on board from page one. (His one recurring protagonist, Sid Halley, was a fine creation indeed.)

I keep copies of Longshot and The Sport of Queens (his memoir) on my desk, for those moments when I can't seem to remember how to write.
posted by grounded at 5:37 PM on February 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I read a bunch of his books ages ago. I remember liking them but finding them really formulaic. And I've had positive associations with Pol Roger champagne ever since.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:41 PM on February 14, 2010

I think the fine title of this post deserves special credit.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:05 PM on February 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Loved Dick Francis, got to meet him once or twice, and am very sad to think that he's gone. An immensely readable and reliably entertaining writer, and a decent guy.

posted by OolooKitty at 6:07 PM on February 14, 2010

"All he ever wanted to do was to ride..."

For Kit and Sid, and for sharing the joy of motion and speed -- thank you, Dick Francis.

posted by MonkeyToes at 6:17 PM on February 14, 2010


Was that a word Francis would have used?
posted by cogneuro at 6:51 PM on February 14, 2010

Ah, this one hurts. I was a true fan all through my teen (riding) years, and read them as sentimental favorites for years afterward. Though the progression of his hero through the story may have been familiar it was comfortably so, and I very often enjoyed the quiet decency of his characters.

Thank you, Mr. Francis, for the uncounted hours of reading pleasure.

posted by faineant at 7:11 PM on February 14, 2010

Oh, I am sorry. I like his books.

posted by SLC Mom at 7:26 PM on February 14, 2010

I loved his books -- too bad...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:40 PM on February 14, 2010

I remember liking them but finding them really formulaic.

Oh, they are formulaic. But there's no shame in that as long as the book otherwise meets some basic literary standards.

Yes, great title. For those who don't know, one of Francis's books was called Dead Cert.

I am sorry to hear this. Dick Francis came across in interviews as such a nice man, so modest and unassuming for a man who had been such a success in both his careers. I remember him saying he didn't put graphic love scenes in his books because he didn't want to embarrass his grandchildren or the Queen Mum, who he had heard liked to read his books. I enjoyed those few of his books I've read and really must look up some more of them. I love mysteries.

Speaking of which, why are so many of the best mystery novelists British?
posted by orange swan at 8:01 PM on February 14, 2010

I grew up on this guy's novels.
posted by PsychoTherapist at 8:10 PM on February 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm very sorry to hear this. I started reading his books as a kid. Because I liked Agatha Christie mysteries and because we had horses, I think my dad figured I'd like them. I like them even more now- the way his books go into vast, nerdy detail about some cool profession or hobby has always made them especially interesting. The last one I of his books I read was over Christmas break. It's hard to believe there won't be any more.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:19 PM on February 14, 2010

My parents read these voraciously when I was a kid. I half-suspected "Dick Francis" was actually a collective of ghost writers, like Franklin W. Dixon.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:30 PM on February 14, 2010

The excellent Simon Barnes has a nice appreciation piece in the Times: The genius of Dick Francis was to give readers a racing certainty.
posted by grounded at 10:30 PM on February 14, 2010

The first Dick Francis book I read was "Enquiry", and that level-headed protagonist who went about clearing his name calmly will always have a special place in my heart.

posted by of strange foe at 10:40 PM on February 14, 2010

The Francises had never made any secret that Mary had played an important part; she was the one who did all the background research: for Flying Finish (1966), she learned to fly, produced a book about flying, then started an air taxi service which she ran for seven years. She learned to paint for In the Frame (1976) and became such an accomplished photographer for Reflex (1980) that she was asked to take a picture of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for a book's dust-jacket.
That's amazing. She deserves a decent biography of her own.

I'd second that Francis' eye for detail was one element that helped make the books so enjoyable for me; his pilot smuggling contraceptives to Italy when they were still illegal, for example.

I like Francis' novels, and it really leaves me feeling that I ought to pick a few up, rather than simply rely on the memories of my parents' copies.
posted by rodgerd at 11:47 PM on February 14, 2010

posted by humanfont at 5:03 AM on February 15, 2010

When I was a kid, I got a bunch of these from my grandmother when she was trying to make some space in her bookshelves. I liked how each book focused on some different job that has something vaguely to do with horses. Kept a little variety in.
posted by smackfu at 5:24 AM on February 15, 2010

Has anyone ever written a thriller about the Grand National when Devon Loch fell? Sounds like it would be ripe for all sorts of plots about the Mob, or maybe the horse tried to avoid a ghost on the track, or maybe the Royal Family could have caused it for one of various nefarious purposes. Mix in the horse's strange name (after all, there aren't any lochs in Devon), and I think you've got a bestseller on your hands.
posted by ZsigE at 5:29 AM on February 15, 2010

The unique thing about Francis was his ability to create protagonists who were *nice* but not boring. True, it was always the same protagonist with different names, but he was such a great guy: he appreciated women for their bravery and intelligence, loved animals, was loyal to relations and had good friendships with other men. His only problem was a disturbing masochistic streak that made him almost relish the maimings he got as he solved the mystery.

The early stuff was really good. I generally pass mysteries on to other people when I'm done, but I've kept "Slayride".
posted by acrasis at 5:42 AM on February 15, 2010

I read all his books when I was about 12. The one where the guy is locked in the car in the hot sun stood out in my mind for a long time as an especially awful way to go. (And I say that as someone who read "Cujo" and thought about it A LOT.)

I read a lot of John D. MacDonald around the same time, and they were interesting to compare-and-contrast for learning about writing style. Francis was precise and measured, while MacDonald was more..lush, maybe -- but I loved them all.

This has been a terrible year so far in terms of losing heroes and favorites.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:16 AM on February 15, 2010

what a shame. My favorite Francis is Decider -- I like the portrayal of the kids and the protagonist's odd marriage.
posted by jaimystery at 8:24 AM on February 15, 2010

posted by Iridic at 8:42 AM on February 15, 2010

posted by mygothlaundry at 10:15 AM on February 15, 2010

His only problem was a disturbing masochistic streak that made him almost relish the maimings he got as he solved the mystery.

That may have come from Francis's own attitude towards his own job-related injuries. Jockeys get injured regularly.
posted by orange swan at 3:34 PM on February 15, 2010

For me it was For Kicks, probably because the hero was Australian like me. Or Banker, which is still a great introduction to both investment banking and the syndication of Thoroughbred stallions.

It really burns me that all the obits are harking back to Devon Loch. He would have understood, but he would have hated it too.

Also, damnit.
posted by rdc at 4:14 PM on February 15, 2010

I’m not a huge mystery-buff, but I think I probably re-read Francis more than any other author on my bookshelves. Whenever I'm between new books, and just want something to read before going to sleep, or for staying in bed on a lazy weekend morning, or just have a minute to grab something from the bookshelf to read on the train, Francis usually wins out.

With some genre stories, the characters are just stick figures that move the plot along. But he had a knack for creating characters and situations that felt real, and that’s one of the reasons I return to him again and again.

His only problem was a disturbing masochistic streak that made him almost relish the maimings he got as he solved the mystery

I don’t think his characters ever relished the pain – they were brave, not fearless. I re-read “Nerve” last night, and during the sequence where Finn is struggling to free himself from being chained up and left to die, there was this passage “Anyone who has tried crying with sticking plaster over his eyes will know that the tears run down inside the nose. When I sniffed, they came into my mouth. Salty. I got tired of the taste.” To me, that’s a definitive Francis hero moment – suffering, but forging on through it.

Damn. I knew this day was coming, but, damn.

posted by oh yeah! at 6:16 PM on February 15, 2010

Formulaic yes, but you knew you were going to get a thoroughly enjoyable read. I read them all and loved every one.

posted by homeless Visigoth at 11:42 AM on February 16, 2010

I love listening to his books as audiobooks - the British accent helps, of course, but every book that I've been able to get that way has been so enjoyable. My brother recently "inherited" most of the Francis pantheon of books, and we've talked about how nice it is to just grab one of those and read it in practically one sitting.

posted by bibbit at 12:05 PM on February 16, 2010

aww. My grandparents have a ton of Dick Francis books, I borrowed them all. It was super exciting when I found three I hadn't read in a flea market in Iceland - when I'd read them I sent them home to mum and the grandparents in case they hadn't read them either.

posted by jacalata at 1:06 PM on February 16, 2010

From Equestrian Ink:
To my surprise I received a letter from Dick not but a few weeks later, kindly praising a few strong points in my book and thanking me again. I wrote him back and thus ensued a correspondence between us. When my second book, “Hoofprints” was published, it contained a dedication to Dick Francis, as the author who had inspired me.

Dick wrote that he liked Hoofprints better than Cutter, and that I was improving as an writer. He was unfailingly cheerful and upbeat in his letters, even when he wrote about the hurricane that battered his home on Grand Cayman, and his wife’s illness. He sent me a Christmas card every year, signed, “love, Dick Francis”, and for many, many years he sent me signed copies of his novels when they came out. He was always polite, always gracious, always supportive, and he never failed to answer a letter. I believe that he had many, many correspondences very like the one he had with me, and from what I’ve been told, he made time for all of them. What a gracious person he was, with such a busy life, so much fame, and yet the ability to take time for the many fans who wrote.
The man was a mensch.
posted by rdc at 7:59 PM on February 17, 2010

I probably re-read Francis more than any other author on my bookshelves.

Me too. My mom got us going on these books: my whole family is in mourning. We're having trouble naming our favorites because we liked so many of them. Bless you for being a good man who wrote a good story, Dick Francis, and a belated thank you to Mary for all her work and contributions to the oeuvre.

posted by bearwife at 2:49 PM on February 18, 2010

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