Francis Is A Frontrunner
I’ve got a new reading craze, thanks to my HM&B Medical-writing friend Sharon Archer. We’ve swapped favorite books for years and just recently she dug out two Dick Francis thrillers for me.
Well, now I’m hooked!
Dick Francis was a famous steeplechase jockey before he took to writing. He rode winners for the late Queen Mother, among many others. This intimate knowledge of the racing game invests his thrillers, usually based around horsey plots, with an authenticity you can feel. They’re also beautifully written with interesting, appealing characters, a nice smattering of dry humor and loads of nail-biting suspense. He wrote his first thriller DEAD CERT in 1962 and continued to write until his death at the age of 89 in 2010.
So far, I’m six books into his oeuvre and I’ve loved every one.
My first was REFLEX (1980) which introduced me to a hero type who’s since become familiar in the DF universe. The man of great potential who through the workings of a malign fate is down on his luck. Of course, being down on his luck means he’ll do all sorts of reckless things. His willingness to take a chance on a dark horse (geddit?) leads to a whole new universe of opportunity. In REFLEX, Philip Nore is a jockey approaching the end of his career and he’s not sure where he turns now. At this difficult moment in his life, he comes to suspect foul play in the death of a press photographer. Philip, a keen amateur photographer himself, investigates and in the process discovers corruption, a new career, love and purpose. Oh, and lots of danger. Never forget that these are thrillers!
Immediately I picked up the second book Sharon had sent me, SMOKESCREEN (1972), which is a beauty in spite of the occasionally dated details. Edward Lincoln is a major action movie star (think Harrison Ford or Charles Bronson) who visits South Africa to investigate skullduggery in his godmother’s racing stables. This is short and sweet and really packs a punch – great climax that wheels back to the opening scene. I loved the complexity of the hero’s character too – he’s much more than just a pretty face on a big screen.
I then begged Sharon to send me some more of this horse book crack. She very kindly forwarded four more to brighten my Christmas reading binge.
IN THE FRAME (1976) features artist hero Charles Todd who paints, you guessed it, horses! This one involves a trip to the Melbourne Cup and is a breathless rush to solve a brutal murder and get to the bottom of a theft/art fraud ring.
Then it was RAT RACE (1976). The return of the down on his luck hero, this time pilot and all round good guy, Matt Shore, who works for a second-rate taxi service ferrying jockeys and horse owners around the U.K.’s racecourses. Someone’s sabotaging planes and Matt finds danger and love as he struggles to stop the culprit before someone dies. There’s a really knuckle-biting scene where Matt’s beloved, an inexperienced pilot, has to fly blind through fog to get her passengers to safety.
We’re racing for the final straight now, and my second-last Christmas read was THE EDGE (1988). In this one, we know who the bad guy is from the start. Julius Apollo Filmer has been part of racing’s nasty underbelly for years but the law can’t touch him. Security expert Tor Kelsey goes undercover to catch Filmer red-handed on a fancy train trip across Canada for racing enthusiasts. On the way, there will be sabotage and danger and murder – and love. I imagine you’re getting the picture now! This one has a fabulous finale!
At the finish line, I read LONGSHOT (1990) which just might be my favorite so far. The characters in this one are so well rounded, you really feel like they’re sitting in your lounge room. Fledgling novelist John Kendall is between advances and enduring an unheated room in the worst winter for years. When he unexpectedly gets the opportunity to write the biography of eccentric horse trainer Tremayne Vickers, he jumps at it, mostly because the gig involves room and board. Quickly John falls under the spell of the Tremayne family and their circle. The racing game starts to exert an equally strong spell. But there’s murder in the air and John finds himself trapped in the middle of a police investigation – do his new friends hide a sinister truth?
So what did I do next? Order in some more Dick Francises, of course! That’s a sure bet!