A Week to Remember: Dick Francis

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of Dick Francis with his horse and a steeplechase tournament

Dick Francis was born on October 31, 1920. Francis was a mystery writer with a very specific subject; he wrote more than 40 novels, all of them set against the backdrop of horse racing. His amateur detectives included jockeys, horse breeders, bookies, and sports reporters, and only occasionally did he re-use a character in more than one novel.

Francis had a solid background in the world of horse racing. For a decade after World War II, he was one of England's best steeplechase jockeys. Steeplechase is to horse racing what hurdles is to track and field; the horse has to jump over various obstacles—fences, water obstacles, ditches—as he runs around the track.

From 1953 to 1957, Francis was the jockey for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who owned several racehorses; in the 1953-54 racing season, he was England's champion jockey, winning more races than anyone else. Francis was seriously injured several times during his racing career, and many of his characters suffer the aftereffects of their own racing injuries. After a particularly serious fall in 1957, the Queen Mother suggested that he retire.

As many athletes do after retirement, Francis wrote a memoir of his years in racing, The Queen of Sports (print). His publisher offered him the assistance of a ghostwriter, but Francis declined. The memoir was written well enough that Francis was offered a job as the racing reporter for a London newspaper, a job he held until the mid-1970s. Many were surprised by his skill as a writer, especially since he had dropped out of school at 15 to begin training as a jockey.

Francis published his first novel, Dead Cert (print | audio), in 1962. The book established his formula—a lone hero fighting the odds to solve a crime, often at risk of injury or death; crisp, witty prose; an entertaining plot; and lots of background detail about the racing world. Background detail, in general, was one of Francis's strengths; he had a fascination with the details of various professions, and often worked them into his stories.

cover art from 5 Dick Francis books

Much of the research into those professions was done by Francis's wife, Mary. Midway through his career, Francis began to publicly acknowledge her role in writing his books. When a plot centered on the planes that fly horses to distant races, Mary Francis earned a pilot's license and flew several such flights herself. Francis told one interviewer, "I have often said that I would have been happy to have both our names on the cover. Mary's family always called me Richard due to having another Dick in the family. I am Richard, Mary was Mary, and Dick Francis was the two of us together."

Francis was a consistent author, publishing a novel every year but one between 1964 and 2000, and in the year without a novel, there was a collection of short stories, Field of Thirteen (e-book | print). He had a routine, with each part of the process happening at a certain time each year – devising a plot in the summer, doing research in the fall, sitting down to write in January, submitting the manuscript in May, and taking a few weeks off before starting the process again.

Francis was awarded the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1996. That wasn't a great surprise; he is the only author ever to win their Edgar Award for the year's best novel three times: in 1970, for Forfeit (print); in 1981 for Whip Hand (print); and in 1996 for Come to Grief (e-book | print).

Francis took a few years off after Mary's death in 2000, and his last few novels were written in collaboration with his son Felix. Francis died in 2010, and Felix Francis has continued to write Dick Francis-branded novels, sticking to his father's book-a-year schedule.

Many of Francis's novels are available in e-book and e-audio formats, and in print.

Also This Week

November 1, 1897

The Library of Congress, previously housed in a small office in the United States Capitol, moved into a building of its own. That building is now known as the Thomas Jefferson Building, and it is one of three buildings that comprise the Library of Congress. The Library's collections fill more than 830 miles of bookshelves; the collection includes more than 30 million books, 5 million maps, 6 million pieces of sheet music, a Gutenberg Bible, and two Stradivarius violins. John Y. Cole's America's Greatest Library (e-book | print) is an illustrated history of the Library of Congress.

November 1, 1898

Sippie Wallace was born. Wallace was one of the most highly regarded blues singers of the 1920s. She retired in the early 1930s, and spent the next thirty years as a church organist and choir director in Detroit. She performed rarely during those years, but came out of retirement in 1966 to record the album Women Be Wise. She toured frequently on the blues and folk festival circuit during the last twenty years of her life, during which she recorded three more albums.

November 4, 1918

Art Carney was born. Carney was a comic actor, best remembered for playing Ed Norton, the sidekick to Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, on The Honeymooners. The Honeymooners began as a recurring sketch on Gleason's variety show in the early 1950s, and became so popular that it often took up most of the hourlong show. The sketch was spun off as a regular 30-minute sitcom in 1955. The Honeymooners Lost Episodes collects more than 60 of the variety show sketches.

October 29 is National Oatmeal Day

Oatmeal is hulled oat grains that have been chopped, flaked, or ground; it's also the name for a porridge made from those grains. It is a staple in much of northern Europe, particularly in Scotland, where oats grow better than wheat. In the United States, common uses (other than porridge) rely mostly on rolled oats, which are used in granola or cookies, or as a topping on baked desserts. Kathy Hester's OATrageous Oatmeals (e-book | print) offers dozens of innovative oatmeal-based recipes.