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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE CONTINUING LEGACY OF DICK FRANCIS

THE CONTINUING LEGACY OF DICK FRANCIS
 
For over forty years, I’ve waited eagerly for each new Dick Francis novel to appear and immediately top my tottering to be read pile. Not only do I buy each new Francis novel on publication day, but I always pay a premium for the British first editions because of their far superior cover art, higher quality paper, and tighter binding. I still buy the America first editions, but do so while shaking my head over their generic look and feel.
 
Recently, I was speaking with the mystery’s most knowledgeable collector and genre maven—a man whose opinion I highly respect. He told me Dick Francis appears to have fallen out of favor with collectors. Apparently, my Dick Francis first editions—signed or unsigned—are currently not worth diddly. While this is unfortunate, it is a moot point as I have no plans to dispose of my extensive Francis collection.
 
Extensive is the operative word in the last sentence. Aside from British and American first editions, I have several different audio editions of each book, and copies of the books and magazines containing the original appearances of the handful of Dick Francis short stories. Then there are the VHS and DVD collections of all of the Francis television adaptations, plus the only feature film based on a Francis novel, Dead Cert
 
My collection further contains press release information for both the books and the TV adaptations, posters and lobby cards for the Dead Cert movie, a bootleg VHS tape of an unauthorized Russian television adaptation of Dead Cert, and several three-ring binders filled with other Francis ephemera.
 
I was fortunate to meet Francis and his wife Mary on several occasions and found them to be charming, good-natured, and unassuming. The fact Mary did quite a bit of work on the books while Dick got the credit on the covers, was an open secret to those familiar with the situation. The Francis sons, Merrick and Felix, also got into the act on occasion. "I designed the bomb that blew up the plane in Rat Race when I was a 17 year old physics student,” Felix explains. “I wrote the computer program in Twice Shy, which I thought was really cutting edge. but is now so out of date." Felix’s experiences as an international marksman would come into play in both Shattered (2000) and Under Orders (2006). Felix eventually left the academic world—with which he still maintains strong ties—to handle his father’s affairs and manage the Dick Francis brand. 
 
When Mary Francis passed away, Francis’ English and American publishers (Michael Joseph and Putnam respectively) began to pave the way for a formal succession of the novels’ authorship from Dick Francis to his son Felix. The tradition of a Francis for Christmas, supposedly an edict from Queen Elizabeth herself, had to continue—As, I’m sure, did the publishers’ revenues. 
 
After thirty-nine novels, two non-fiction tomes, and a collection of short stories, the next four novels were bylined Dick Francis in large type at the top of the covers with And  Felix Francis in smaller type at the bottom. Once Francis himself passed away, there was still a Francis for Christmas, only now Felix was credited as the sole author of the next six successful Dick Francis branded tales of horseracing mayhem and mystery—with no finish line yet in sight.
 
Francis himself rarely used a main character for more than one book. He believed a new book needed a new main character as it made filling the pages easier if there was a different hero to describe and develop. He also felt using a new hero in each story made it easy for the books to be read in no specific order. 
 
Francis followed this rule literally in name only and with two exceptions. Anyone who has ever read a Francis book would recognize the same hero templet in each succeeding volume. The character may have a different occupation—from race pilot to horse transport driver to official British Horse Racing Authority agent—a different girlfriend, and a different physical appearance, but the first person voice of the character never changed, nor did the likeable persona, dogged determination, and quick thinking characteristics, which were the touchstones of every Francis hero. This is not a criticism. In many ways, this approach is brilliant because it creates the perfect mix of the comfortable and expected with the allure of new and vibrant backstories and professions, all played against the ever present world of horses and racing.
 
The two exceptions to Francis’ general rule were Sid Halley and Kit Fielding. Appearing first in Break In (1985), Fielding saw a return to action the following year in Bolt (1986) as Francis was concurrently writing the official biography of Lester Piggott and did not have the time to research a new lead character. Sid Halley, however, was a different story.
 
In 1979, the first Sid Halley novel was adapted for the debut of six episodes comprising the television series, The Racing Game. While the other five episodes were original stories created by other writers, Sid Halley remained as the series protagonist. Francis was extremely impressed by the performance of actor Mike Gwilym, who portrayed Sid Halley in the series. Francis felt Gwilym so completely embodied the character, he was inspired to write the second Halley novel, Whip Hand (1979), dedicating it to Gwilym. The novel was so successful, Halley became a fan favorite and Francis brought the character back again in Come to Grief (1995) and Under Orders (2006).  
 
NOTE: In 1989 there were also three made for TV films adapting Francis’ novels Blood Sport (1967), In the Frame (1976), and Twice Shy (1981). The films replaced the different heroes from all three books with Ian McShane starring as David Cleveland, a character used only once by Francis, in the novel Slayride (1973).
 
The popularity of Sid Halley was augmented by his being the perfect Francis style hero—intelligent, tormented, and driven. A top jockey, Halley’s hand was crushed in a racing fall when a fall a horse stepped directly on his left palm. As the hand remained mostly useless even after a series of operations, the injury effectively ended his racing career. 
 
Unable to ride, Halley reluctantly takes a job as a private investigator for Hunt Radnor Associates, a large security firm with strong ties to the horseracing industry. Filled with self-pity over the hand injury, which cost him his racing career and his wife, he sleepwalks through life until a series of unexplained racetrack accidents peak his interest. In the course of the case, he discovers has an affinity for being a detective. However, this personal breakthrough comes at a high cost when the villain of the piece damages the injured hand even further, resulting in its amputation.
 
Odds Against earned Francis his first nomination for an MWA Edgar Award for Best Novel. The return of Sid Halley in Whip Hand won both the MWA Edgar and the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Novel, a double down share only with John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The third Halley novel, Come to Grief, also won an Edgar, making Halley the only detective-hero in fiction to be headline two Best Novel Edgars.
 
In 2013, in his third solo outing, Felix Francis returned to his father’s most popular character in Dick Francis’ Refusal. Now 47 years old, Halley has a six-year-old daughter and has given up detective work. However, to protect his family from a series of violent threats, he must reignite his long dormant detective skills. 
 
In interviews, Felix Francis has stated, I didn’t actually decide to follow in my father’s footsteps. It was all a bit of an accident. My father’s literary agent approached me and said that, after five years of no new Dick Francis novel [2001—2006], people were forgetting and my father’s backlist would soon go out of print. What was needed was a new novel to stimulate interest. By this time my father was 85 and my mother, who had worked closely with my father on the novels, had died.
 
I told the agent that there was no chance of a new novel. He then asked if I, as my father’s manager, would give my permission for him to approach an established and well known crime writer to write a new ‘Dick Francis novel‘. I replied that, before he asked anyone else, I would like to have a go. “Write two chapters,” the agent said. “And then we’ll see.” I suspect he thought that he would then get my permission to ask the established writer. I wrote the two chapters and, as they say, the rest is history. The agent told me to get on and finish the book, and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since...
 
After four novels under his father’s tutelage—Dead Heat (2007), Silks (2008), Even Money (2009), and Crossfire (2010)—Dick Francis’ Gamble, published in September 2011, retained the Dick Francis brand, but was Felix Francis’ first solo outing.
 
The idea of a recurring hero apparently appealed to Felix Francis. Following the return of Sid Halley in Dick Francis’ Refusal, Felix Francis’ next novel, Dick Francis’ Damage (2014), introduced British Horseracing Authority agent Jefferson Jeff Hinkley. 
 
A highly trained investigator, Hinkley was as an officer in the British Army Intelligence Corps. He served several tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is not fazed by situations of intense danger where he has to rely solely on his wits to extricate himself from trouble. He is also a master of disguise. Like all Francis heroes, he is organized, loyal, and courageous—stubbornly refusing to be put off the scent of his quarry despite threats, beatings, stabbings, and bombings. 
 
My editor and publisher were keen to have Jeff back and I believed it was the time, maybe, to write a series...I have certainly found the experience interesting, if not always easy. The primary difficulty being the need to create a story that can be read in isolation from the others in the series without the need for prior knowledge from previously written works...To be a success, it is essential people care about the protagonist. They don’t have to necessarily like him, but they do have to care what happens to him and also how the story unfolds around him...
 
As a result, Felix Francis immediately brought Hinkley back in Front Runner: A Dick Francis Novel (2015), unearthing some unresolved issues from Dick Francis’ Damage, to challenge his returning hero. Hinkley’s adventures also continue in Felix Francis’ latest novel, Triple Crown: A Dick Francis Novel (2016)—which takes Hinkley to America and the perils of the Kentucky Derby and the other glamorous races comprising American racing’s biggest prize. 
 
Like Sid Halley before him, Jeff Hinkley is extremely likeable. Felix Francis has captured his father’s skill at using the first person narrative of his tales to make the reader feel like a close friend along for the investigative ride. For me, Felix Francis has refreshed the brand. As a self-admitted Dick Francis fanatic, I’m delighted to see the stories continuing in a style and quality of which both Dick and Mary Francis would be proud. 
 
DICK FRANCIS’ DAMAGE
 
Undercover investigator Jeff Hinkley is assigned by the British Horseracing Authority to look into the activities of a suspicious racehorse trainer, but as he’s tailing his quarry through the Cheltenham Racing Festival, the last thing he expects to witness is a gruesome murder. Could it have something to do with the reason the trainer was banned in the first place—the administration of illegal drugs to his horses?
 
Then many more horses test positive for prohibited stimulants, and someone starts making demands, threatening to completely destroy the integrity of the racing industry. In order to limit the damage to the sport, it’s critical that Jeff find the perpetrator...but he’ll soon learn he’s up against someone who will stop at nothing to prevail.
 
FRONT RUNNER: A DICK FRANCIS NOVEL
 
In his role as an undercover investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, Jeff Hinkley is approached by a multi-time champion jockey to discuss the delicate matter of losing races on purpose. Little does he know that the call will set off a lethal chain of events, including the apparent suicide of the jockey and an attempt on Hinkley’s own life. Never one to leave suspicious events alone, Hinkley begins investigating the jockey and the races he may have thrown. But there are others out there who intend to prevent his inquiry from probing further…at any cost.
 
TRIPLE CROWN: A DICK FRANCIS NOVEL
 
Jefferson Hinkley is back in the newest thriller in the Dick Francis tradition, this time on a special mission to the United States to investigate a conspiracy involving the biggest horse races in the country.
 
Jeff Hinkley, investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, has been seconded to the US Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA) where he has been asked to find a mole in their organization—an informant who is passing on confidential information to those under suspicion in American racing.  At the Kentucky Derby, Jeff joins the FACSA team in a raid on a horse trainer’s barn at Churchill Downs, but the bust is a disaster, and someone ends up dead.  Then, on the morning of the Derby itself, three of the most favored horses in the field fall sick. 
 
These suspicious events can be no coincidence. In search of answers, Jeff goes undercover as a groom on the backstretch at Belmont Park racetrack in New York. But he discovers far more than he was bargaining for: corrupt individuals who will stop at nothing—including murder—to capture the most elusive prize in world sport, the Triple Crown.

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