Profile at MysteryNet.com: “Never Forgetting the Falls” by J. Madison Davis
Thriller writer Dick Francis brings the lessons learned in his horse-racing career to his novels.
“I waited for things to settle: chest heaving, bones still rattling from the bang… No harm done. Nothing broken. Just another fall.”, Reflex
Every year since 1962, Dick Francis has published another novel which demonstrates how a man should live. Fate, luck, thugs, or simply unfavorable circumstances knock his heroes down and it hurts. Momentarily rattled, they nonetheless stand up, grit their teeth, and move on. Scarred, but unbowed, never complaining. It’s just another fall. No harm done.
Books reflect their authors, of course, but the personality and presence of Richard Stanley Francis is on every page of his books. He .has been knocked down and he has gotten up, again and again. Born in Wales, he grew up wanting to be a jockey. Unfortunately, he grew up too much and had to become a steeplechaser, a profession in which longer legs are an advantage. About the time he should have launched his career, he worked for his father to keep the family stables solvent. Then World War II intervened. He found himself repairing airplanes, then flying them. By the time the war was over, he was past the usual beginning age for a jockey, but began nonetheless.
He broke more than twenty bones in his career: each collarbone half a dozen times, his nose five times. He broke his ribs so many times he lost count, but ribs don’t matter, you just tape up, ignore the pain, and ride. He endured and became champion jockey of England and jockey to the Queen Mother. He had only one unattained goal: winning the most important steeplechase, the Grand National. In his first attempt in 1947, the same year his beloved wife Mary was stricken with polio, he lost the lead just before the finish. In 1951 he was part of an pileup of eleven horses and men at the first jump. Finally in 1956, he was on one of the greatest mounts he had ever had, Devon Loch. Clearly leading after the final jump and running away from the pack, the horse inexplicably stopped cold.
Why the horse did it, no one knows. Francis was now thirty-six; he didn’t heal as well as a young man any more. He would end his career known as the unlucky bloke who nearly won the Grand National. Fortunately for us, the mystery of Devon Loch’s behavior caught the interest of a publisher. Francis was asked to write his autobiography, and when he refused to let a ghost writer move in with him, his writing career broke for the first turn.
Stoically, Francis says he began his first thriller, Dead Cert, because the carpet was wearing thin, the car rattled, and his sons needed educating. Since then his sons are well-educated, his Mercedes hums, and his carpet in his house in the Grand Cayman must be as lush as the jungle. He is truly a man who, to paraphrase Kipling, has walked with kings, but not lost the common touch. His annual books are at a level of quality most writers manage only once or twice. Yet he is incapable of resting on his laurels. He once wrote, “Year by year, I still find that it is dangerous to be complacent about one’s skill; and unexpected and painful fall is a rough disillusionment.”
His lack of complacency has produced high compliments from his colleagues in mystery writing. Forfeit (1969) and Come to Grief (1996) both received Edgars for Best Novel of the year. His lifetime career achievements were honored when he was awarded the Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association in 1989 and when he was named a Grandmaster by the MWA in 1996. Perhaps he would rather have won the Grand National than all these awards, though readers everywhere are grateful he did not. He’s a Grandmaster of Living. Knock him down, he gets back up. Set him back, he does not quit. His books are his testimony to that.
Buy Dick Francis Horse-Racing Thrillers at MysteryBookstore.com
Selected Dick Francis Horse-Racing Thrillers
J. Madison Davis was nominated for an Edgar Award for his first novel, The Murder of Frau Schutz, which is currently in development as a German motion picture. He published four other novels, including Bloody Marko (1991), about a Serbian war criminal. His nonfiction includes Dick Francis (1989), The Shakespeare Name Dictionary (1995), and he edited Murderous Schemes (1997), with Donald Westlake.