Dick Francis jockey, mystery writer 10/31/1920 - 2/14/2010
My friend Theresa turned me on to Dick Francis and his mysteries. Her whole family was already hooked. And it only took one before I was, too. Francis' books followed a certain formula, but that formula included honorable men of integrity, often with a secret sadness or some emotional damage, and a determination to get to the bottom of whatever problem the bad guys were causing, no matter the cost. The heroes in these books are people you feel good about liking. They did tend to get beat up a lot, and because of that, I don't recommend reading too many in a row. Dick Francis is very realistic in his descriptions of pain - as a steeplechase jockey, he was well-acquainted with injury and pain.
In addition to having characters I liked, the books were very well-researched. I always learned things I didn't know while reading a Dick Francis novel. It might be about horses and racing, but it could just as well be about photography, wine, glassblowing, planes, acting, marksmanship, investment banking, or hurricanes. Folks often had the perception that because he had been a jockey, Dick Francis only wrote about horses. Not only was that wrong, even the books that were about horses and racing, were also about life, and loyalty, and knowing when you had to stand up for something, no matter how difficult. The critic John Leonard once said, "Not to read Dick Francis because you don't like horses is like not reading Dostoevsky because you don't like God."
If you've never read Dick Francis, you have a treat in store. Where do you start? Nearly all are standalone novels [exceptions: 4 about Sid Halley: Odds Against, Whip Hand, Come to Grief, and Under Orders; and 2 about Kit Fielding: Break In and Bolt], so you can start almost anywhere without worrying about order. So what about my favorites? Reflex is great, and you'll learn a lot about cameras. Risk introduces you to the most interesting accountant. Blood Sport is his first set in the US, and gave me the first glimpse at depression where I thought I actually understood for a moment what living with depression is like. Nerve was the first I ever read, I'm pretty sure. Oh, and The Danger looks at the psychology of kidnapping. The Edge takes place on a train ride across Canada......well, it's clear I can't pick a favorite for you. So, start with his earlier books. His later books, written with his son, are good, but not quite as wonderful as the ones he wrote with Mary, his wife. And if you like it, don't read them all at once. Promise yourself the next one at a certain time in the future - re-create the sense of anticipation his fans always felt as the seasons changed and it was almost time for this year's Dick Francis. Ah well, rereading Dick Francis is almost as good as reading him for the first time.