Dick Francis

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Dick Francis
Dick Francis.jpg
Born(1920-10-31)31 October 1920
Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Died14 February 2010(2010-02-14) (aged 89)
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, Caribbean
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
GenreCrime fiction
SpouseMary Margaret (née Brenchley; m. 1947–2000)
ChildrenMerrick, Felix
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For the science fiction illustrator, see Dick Francis (illustrator).
Dick Francis
Dick Francis.jpg
Born(1920-10-31)31 October 1920
Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Died14 February 2010(2010-02-14) (aged 89)
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, Caribbean
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
GenreCrime fiction
SpouseMary Margaret (née Brenchley; m. 1947–2000)
ChildrenMerrick, Felix

Richard Stanley "Dick" Francis CBE FRSL (31 October 1920 – 14 February 2010) was a British[1] steeplechase jockey and crime writer, whose novels centre on horse racing in England.[2][3][4]

After wartime service in the RAF, Francis became a full-time jump-jockey, winning over 350 races and becoming champion jockey of the British National Hunt. He came to further prominence as jockey to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, riding her horse Devon Loch when it fell, for unexplained reasons, while close to winning the Grand National. He then retired from the turf and became a professional journalist and novelist.

All his novels deal with crime in the horse-racing world, some of the criminals being outwardly respectable figures. The stories are narrated by one of the key players, often a jockey, but sometimes a trainer, an owner, a bookie, or someone in a different profession, peripherally linked to racing. This person is always facing great obstacles, often including physical injury, from which he must fight back with determination. More than forty of these novels became international best-sellers.

Personal life[edit]

Francis was born in Coedcanlas, Pembrokeshire, Wales.[5] Some sources report his birthplace as the inland town of Lawrenny, but at least two of his obituaries stated his birthplace as the coastal town of Tenby.[6][7] His autobiography says that he was born at his maternal grandparents' farm at Coedcanlas on the estuary of the River Cleddau,[8] roughly a mile north-west of Lawrenny. He was the son of a jockey and stable manager[9] and he grew up in Berkshire, England.[10] He left school at 15 without any qualifications,[11] with the intention of becoming a jockey and became a trainer in 1938.[12]

During World War II, Francis volunteered, hoping to join the cavalry. Instead, he served in the Royal Air Force, working as ground crew and later piloting fighter and bomber aircraft, including the Spitfire and Hurricane.[11] He said in an interview that he spent much of his six years in the Air Force in Africa.[5]

In October 1945, he met Mary Margaret Brenchley (17 June 1924 – 30 September 2000),[11] at a cousin's wedding. In most interviews, they say that it was love at first sight. (Francis has some of his characters fall similarly in love within moments of meeting, as in the novels Flying Finish, Knockdown, and The Edge.) Their families were not entirely happy with their engagement, but Dick and Mary were married in June, 1947, in London. She had earned a degree in English and French from London University at the age of 19, was an assistant stage manager and later worked as a publisher's reader. She also became a pilot, and her experiences flying contributed to many novels, including Flying Finish, Rat Race, and Second Wind. She contracted polio while pregnant with their first child, a plight dramatized to a greater extent in the novel Forfeit, which Francis called one of his favorites. They had two sons, Merrick and Felix[11] (born 1953).[13]

In the 1980s, Francis and his wife moved to Florida; in 1992, they moved to the Cayman Islands, where Mary died of a heart attack in 2000. In 2006, Francis had a heart bypass operation; in 2007 his right leg was amputated.[14] He died of natural causes on 14 February 2010 at his Caribbean home in Grand Cayman,[15] survived by both sons.[16]

Horse racing career[edit]

After leaving the RAF in 1946, Francis became a celebrity in the world of British National Hunt racing.[9] He won over 350 races, becoming champion jockey in the 1953–54 season.[9]

Shortly after becoming a professional, he was offered the prestige job of first jockey to Vivian Smith, Lord Bicester.[17][18]

From 1953 to 1957 he was jockey to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.[19] His most famous moment as a jockey came while riding the Queen Mother's horse, Devon Loch, in the 1956 Grand National when the horse inexplicably fell when close to winning the race.[20][21] Decades later, Francis considered losing that race his greatest regret and called it "a disaster of massive proportions."[5]

Like most jump jockeys, Francis had his share of injuries. Unlike most, he was hospitalized at the age of 12 when a pony fell on him and broke his jaw and nose.[17] A career featuring broken bones and damaged organs found its way into many novels, whose narrators suffer a variety of damaged bodies. In 1957, after one too many serious falls, the Queen Mother's adviser, Lord Abergavenny, advised him that she wanted him to retire from racing for her.

Contributions to racing[edit]

In 1983, the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse in England "stood at the brink of extinction," according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. News reporter Don Clippinger wrote, "Britain's Jockey Club negotiated a $14 million deal to buy the land and save the race forever. The only problem was that the Jockey Club did not have $14 million, so two prominent racing personalities - Lord Derby and novelist Dick Francis - were selected to raise the money in a worldwide campaign."[22] Other philanthropists, including Charles C. Fenwick Jr., who rode Ben Nevis to victory in the 1980 Grand National, and Paul Mellon, a breeder and racing enthusiast, also contributed to save the race.

Writing career[edit]

Francis wrote more than 40 international best-sellers. His first book was his autobiography The Sport of Queens (1957), for which he was offered the aid of a ghostwriter, which he spurned.[23] The book's success led to his becoming the racing correspondent for London's Sunday Express newspaper, and he remained in the job for 16 years.

In 1962, he published his first thriller, Dead Cert, set in the world of racing. Subsequently he regularly produced a novel a year for the next 38 years, missing only 1998 (during which he published a short-story collection). Although all his books were set against a background of horse racing, his male heroes held a variety of jobs including artist (In the Frame and To the Hilt), private investigator (Odds Against, Whip Hand, Come to Grief, Under Orders—all starring injured ex-jockey Sid Halley, one of only two heroes used more than once), investigator for the Jockey Club (The Edge), pilot (Rat Race and Flying Finish), wine merchant (Proof) and many others. All the novels are narrated by the hero, who in the course of the story discovers himself to be more resourceful, brave, tricky, than he had thought, and usually finds a certain salvation for himself as well as bestowing it on others. Details of other people's occupations fascinated Francis, and the reader finds himself or herself immersed in the mechanics of such things as photography, accountancy, the gemstone trade, restaurant service on transcontinental trains—but always in the interests of the plot. Dysfunctional families were a subject which he exploited particularly well (Reflex, a baleful grandmother; Hot Money, a multi-millionaire father and serial ex-husband; Decider, the related co-owners of a racecourse).

A columnist for The Houston Chronicle said that Francis "writes believable fairy tales for adults - ones in which the actors are better than we are but are believable enough to make us wonder if indeed we could not one day manage to emulate them."[24]

Many of Francis' books are featured in volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books.

Writing routine[edit]

Francis described a typical year of research and writing to an interviewer in 1989:

In January, he sits down to write, staring down the barrel of a deadline. "My publisher comes over in mid-May to collect the manuscript," he says, "and it's got to be done."
The book's publication takes place in England in September. American publication in past years has been in February, although his next book, Straight, is set to be published in November. Once the manuscript is out of his hands, he takes the summer off, while percolating the plot of his next book. Research on the next book begins in late summer and continues through the autumn, while he's gearing up for his promotional tour for the just-published book. Come January, he sits down to write again.
He doesn't like book tours. He is not one for revelations, major life changes, and intimacies with strange interviewers, and he says he gets tired of answering the same questions again and again.
He shuns the lecture circuit. He'd prefer to let his novels and his sales volume speak for themselves... And though he doesn't love the act of writing a 2287038nd [sic] [and] could easily retire, he finds himself planning his new book as each summer ends.
He says, "Each one, you think to yourself, 'This is the last one,' but then, by September, you're starting again. If you've got money, and you're just having fun, people think you're a useless character."
Or, as independently wealthy Tor Kelsey says in The Edge, explaining why he works for a minuscule salary: "I work... because I like it, I'm not all that bad at what I do, really, and it's useful, and I'm not terribly good at twiddling my thumbs."[25]


Francis collaborated extensively in his fiction with his wife, Mary, until her death, which came as a later surprise to some readers and reviewers.[14][26][27] He credited her with being a great researcher for the novels. In 1981, Don Clippinger interviewed the Francises for The Philadelphia Inquirer and wrote, "When Dick Francis sits down each January to begin writing another of his popular mystery-adventure novels, it is almost a certain bet that his wife, Mary, has developed a new avocation... For instance, in Rat Race, [the protagonist] operated an air-taxi service that specialized in carrying jockeys, trainers and owners to distant race courses. Before that book came out in 1970, Mrs. Francis obtained a pilot's licence and was operating an air-taxi service of her own. Francis' newest novel, Reflex, is built around photography, and sure enough, Mary Francis has become accomplished behind the camera and in the darkroom... And, in their condominium, they have set up the subject of his 20th novel [Twice Shy] - a computer. While he is touring the country, she is working on new computer programs."[28]

According to journalist Mary Amoroso, "Mary does much of the research: She went so far as to learn to fly a plane for Flying Finish. She also edits his manuscripts, and serves as sounding board for plot line and character development. Says Francis, 'At least the research keeps her from going out shopping.'"[25] Francis told interviewers Jean Swanson and Dean James,

Mary and I worked as a team. ... 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.[5]

Francis's manager (and co-author of his later books) was his son Felix, who left his post as teacher of A-Level Physics at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire in order to work for his father. Felix was the inspiration behind a leading character, a marksman and physics teacher, in the novel Twice Shy. The older son, Merrick, was a racehorse trainer and later ran his own horse transport business, which inspired the novel Driving Force.

Father and son collaborated on four novels; after Dick's death, Felix carried on to publish novels with his father's name in the title (Dick Francis's Gamble (2011), Dick Francis's Bloodline (2012)).


His first novel, Dead Cert, was filmed under the same title in 1974. Directed by Tony Richardson, it starred Scott Antony, Judi Dench and Michael Williams.[29] It was adapted again as Favorit (a Russian made-for-television movie) in 1977.[30]

Francis's protagonist Sid Halley was featured in six TV movies made for the program The Dick Francis Thriller: The Racing Game (1979-1980), starring Mike Gwilym as Halley and Mick Ford as his partner, Chico Barnes. One of the shows, Odds Against, used a Francis title; the others were created for the program.

Three more TV films of 1989 were adaptations of Bloodsport, In the Frame, and Twice Shy, all starring Ian McShane and featuring protagonist David Cleveland, a name actually used only once by Francis, in the novel Slayride.


Francis is the only three-time recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for Best Novel, winning for Forfeit in 1970, Whip Hand in 1981, and Come To Grief in 1996. Britain's Crime Writers Association awarded him its Gold Dagger Award for fiction in 1979 and the Cartier Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. he was granted another Lifetime Achievement Award . Tufts University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1991. In 1996 he was given the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, the highest honour bestowed by the MWA. In 2000, he was granted the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1983 and promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000.[31]

Amoroso wrote in 1989, "And yet he has a keen sense of the evanescence of literary endeavors. 'Whole months of work can be gone in four hours,' he says ruefully. 'People say they can't put my books down, and so they read them in one sitting of four hours.' Francis has been long accustomed to celebrity as a British sports star, but today he is a worldwide phenomenon, having been published in 22 languages. In Australia, he is recognized in restaurants, from his book-jacket picture. He and Mary will see people reading the novels on planes and trains."[25]

Francis was elected in 1999 a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.[32]


TitleYearISBN of first editionMain characterNotes
The Sport of Queens1957autobiography
Dead Cert1962Alan York, amateur jockeyBasis of the movie Dead Cert (1974)
Nerve1964Rob Finn, jockeyBasis of the audio drama Breaking Point, starring Michael Kitchen
For Kicks1965Daniel Roke, Australian horse breeder temporarily turned UK investigator
Odds Against1965ISBN 0-330-10597-3Sid Halley, investigatorEdgar Award nominee
Flying Finish1966Henry Grey, groom/heir to earldom, pilotEdgar Award nominee
Blood Sport1967Gene Hawkins, government security agentEdgar Award nominee
Forfeit1968ISBN 0-425-20191-0James Tyrone, reporterEdgar Award winner
Enquiry1969Kelly Hughes, jockey
Rat Race1970Matt Shore, former airline pilot now flying charter
Bonecrack1971ISBN 0-718-10898-1Neil Griffon, formerly antique dealer, then business consultant, acting as temporary trainer whilst his father is hospitalised
Smokescreen1972ISBN 0-718-1103-90Edward Lincoln, movie actor who does his own stunts
Slay Ride1973ISBN 0-718-11150-8David Cleveland, investigator
Knockdown1974ISBN 0-718-11297-0Jonah Dereham, bloodstock agent
High Stakes1975ISBN 0-718-11393-4Steven Scott, toy inventor
In the Frame1976ISBN 0-718-11527-9Charles Todd, painter
Risk1977ISBN 0-718-11636-4Roland Britten, accountant
Trial Run1978Randall Drew, gentleman and ex-jockey
Whip Hand1979ISBN 0-718-11845-6Sid Halley, investigatorEdgar Award winner, Gold Dagger winner
Reflex1980ISBN 0-718-11950-0Philip Nore, jockey and photographer
Twice Shy1981ISBN 0-718-12056-6Jonathan Derry, teacher, second part narrated by younger brother William Derry, jockey & later racing manager
Banker1982ISBN 0-718-12173-2Tim Ekaterin, merchant banker
The Danger1983Andrew Douglas, anti-kidnapping consultant
Proof1984ISBN 0-718-12481-2Tony Beach, wine merchantJapan Adventure Fiction Association Prize winner
Break In1985ISBN 0-718-12597-5Kit Fielding, jockey
Bolt1986ISBN 0-718-12756-0Kit Fielding, jockey
A Jockey's Life1986ISBN 0-399-13179-5 / 978-0-399-13179-0 (USA edition)Biography of Lester Piggott, later reissued as Lester
Hot Money1987ISBN 0-718-12851-6Ian Pembroke, former asst trainer, amateur jockey
The Edge1988ISBN 0-718-13179-7Tor Kelsey, investigator for the Jockey Club
Straight1989ISBN 0-718-13180-0Derek Franklin, jockey & later jewelry firm owner
Longshot1990ISBN 0-718-13447-8John Kendall, writer and survival skills expert
Comeback1991Peter Darwin, diplomat
Driving Force1992ISBN 0-718-13482-6Freddie Croft, trucking company owner
Decider1993ISBN 0-718-13602-0Lee Morris, architect
Wild Horses1994ISBN 0-718-13603-9Thomas Lyon, film director
Come to Grief1995ISBN 0-7181-3753-1Sid Halley, investigatorEdgar Award winner, Japan Adventure Fiction Association Prize winner
To the Hilt1996ISBN 0-718-142136Alexander Kinloch, painter
10 LB. Penalty1997ISBN 0-718-14245-4Ben Juliard, jockey/politician's son
Field of 131998ISBN 0-718-14351-5short stories:
  • 1. "Raid at Kingdom Hill" (first appeared in The Times, 1975)
  • 2. "Dead on Red"
  • 3. "Song for Mona"
  • 4. "Bright White Star" (first appeared in Cheshire Life, Christmas 1979)
  • 5. "Collision Course"
  • 6. "Nightmare" (first appeared in The Times, 13 April 1974)
  • 7. "Carrot for a Chestnut" (first appeared in Sports Illustrated, 1970)
  • 8. "The Gift" (first appeared as "A Day of Wine and Roses" in Sports Illustrated, 1973)
  • 9. "Spring Fever" (first appeared in Women's Own magazine, 1980)
  • 10. "Blind Chance" (first appeared as "Twenty-one Good Men and True" in Verdict of Thirteen: A Detection Club Anthology, 1979)
  • 11. "Corkscrew"
  • 12. "The Day of the Losers" (first appeared in Horse and Hound, February 1977)
  • 13. "Haig's Death"
Second Wind1999ISBN 0-718-14408-2Perry Stuart, meteorologist
Shattered2000ISBN 0-718-14453-8Gerard Logan, glass blower
Under Orders2006ISBN 978-0-330-44833-8Sid Halley, investigatorJapan Adventure Fiction Association Prize winner
Dead Heat2007ISBN 978-0-399-15476-8Max Moreton, chefwith Felix Francis
Silks2008ISBN 978-0-7181-5457-8Geoffrey Mason, barristerwith Felix Francis
Even Money2009ISBN 978-0-399-15591-8Ned Talbot, bookmakerwith Felix Francis
Crossfire2010US ISBN 978-0-399-15681-6
UK ISBN 978-0-7181-5663-3
Captain Tom Forsyth, military officerwith Felix Francis
Dick Francis's Gamble2011ISBN 978-1-4104-3870-6Nicholas "Foxy" Foxton, financial adviserwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis
Dick Francis's Bloodline2012ISBN 978-1-4104-5223-8Mark Shillington, racing commentatorwritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis
Dick Francis's Refusal2013ISBN 978-0399160813Sid Halleywritten after Dick Francis's death by Felix Francis

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Our favourite thriller writer Dick Francis is back in the saddle, entertainment.timesonline.co.uk
  2. ^ Dick Francis obituary, guardian.co.uk
  3. ^ Author Dick Francis dies aged 89, guardian.co.uk
  4. ^ Stasio, Marilyn (15 February 2010). "Dick Francis, Jockey and Writer, Dies at 89". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ a b c d Swanson, Jean; Dean James (2003). "An Interview with Dick Francis". The Dick Francis Companion. New York: Berkeley Prime Crime. pp. 1–10. ISBN 0-425-18187-1. 
  6. ^ Obituary London Independent, 16 February 2010.
  7. ^ Thursby, Keith (15 February 2010). "Dick Francis dies at 89; champion jockey became best-selling British mystery writer". Los Angeles Times. 
  8. ^ Francis, Dick (1986) [First published 1957, updated 1982]. The Sport of Queens. New York: Penzler Books. p. 14. ISBN 0-445-40331-4. We loved the farm. It was our mother's home, and I was born there. 
  9. ^ a b c Francis, Dick (1999). The Sport of Queens. London: Joseph. ISBN 978-0-330-33902-5. OCLC 59457268. 
  10. ^ Dick Francis interview for Even Money, telegraph.co.uk
  11. ^ a b c d "Obituary: Mary Francis". The Times. 6 October 2000. Retrieved 18 October 2009. 
  12. ^ Cook, Bruce (21 March 1989). "Novelist Dick Francis Still Rides The Wave Of Success In The Edge'". The Spokesman-Review (Spokane Chronicle). Retrieved 18 October 2009. 
  13. ^ title= Dick Francis and Felix Francis
  14. ^ a b Andrews, Emily; Lord, Graham (15 February 2010). "Queen's grief as former jockey and best-selling author Dick Francis dies at 89". Daily Mail. 
  15. ^ Dick Francis, thriller writer and ex-jockey, dies
  16. ^ "Author Dick Francis dies aged 89". BBC News. 14 February 2010. Retrieved 14 February 2010. 
  17. ^ a b Cantwell, Robert (March 25, 1968). "Mystery Makes A Writer". Sports Illustrated Vault. Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  18. ^ Mott, Sue (20 November 2004). "It was terrible to be told that the Queen Mother wanted me to retire". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  19. ^ Nikkhah, Roya (1 September 2009). "Dick Francis interview". Telegraph. Retrieved 20 February 2010. 
  20. ^ Philip, Robert (5 April 2002). "Grand National: Devon Loch's place in history". Telegraph. Retrieved 18 October 2009. 
  21. ^ Shapiro, T. Rees (16 February 2010). "Dick Francis, British jockey turned popular mystery author, dies at 89". The Washington Post. 
  22. ^ Clippinger, Don (March 30, 1983). "Drive To Save Aintree Nears Goal". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved April 28, 2013. 
  23. ^ Hayes, Heather B. (October 29, 1991). "Dick Francis: Still a sure bet for mystery fans". The Washington Times. p. E1. 
  24. ^ Barlow, Jim (February 19, 1989). "In Dick Francis' world, small things are interesting". Houston Chronicle. p. 20. Retrieved April 29, 2013. 
  25. ^ a b c Amoroso, Mary (February 24, 1989). "Sure Bet on a Different Track". The Record (Woodland Park, NJ: North Jersey Media Group). p. A11. Retrieved April 27, 2013. 
  26. ^ Davison, John (October 20, 1999). "Dick Francis thrillers 'were ghost written by wife'". The Independent. Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  27. ^ Stanford, Peter (September 1, 2011). "Anything Dad could do... Felix Francis, son of thriller writer Dick Francis, pens his first solo effort". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  28. ^ Clippinger, Don (March 31, 1981). "The His-and-Her Mysteries of Dick Francis". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved April 27, 2013. 
  29. ^ "Dead Cert". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  30. ^ "Favorit". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  31. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 55879. p. 8. 19 June 2000. Retrieved 14 February 2010.
  32. ^ "Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 8 August 2010. 

External links[edit]