• Well Red

Reviewing a guilty pleasure...Dick Francis

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

Title: N/A

Author: Dick Francis

Published: 1962 to 2010(ish)

Publisher: Various

Rating: ***/****

Genre: Crime Fiction

Difficulty: Easy

Always spoiler free

I’ve jumped from reviewing my first (incomplete) series to a whole author’s back catalogue (ambitious? Me?), so forgive me for the many…generalisations that will be in this review. I started reading Dick Francis novels as a child (Dick Francis published over 30 books from ’62 on wards), as my mother always had his latest book on hand. My mother and siblings rode horses and, at least for a while, fully embraced the horsing lifestyle, so it should come as no surprise that we also read Dick Francis.

For the uninitiated, Dick Francis was a very successful jockey, who after retiring (jockeys usually retire young – it’s a young person’s sport), turned his hand to writing. Very successfully. Most of Francis’ novels revolve around the horsing world (usually racing), but not all do. Francis does a great job making the horsing world accessible to the reader. He doesn’t assume prior knowledge, carefully explaining how it all works in a way that doesn’t make you feel like an idiot. He does this with all the topics he writes about (horse related or otherwise), which makes the books delightfully accessible. A husband-wife team, Francis’ novels are beautifully researched. Mary Francis was said to get her pilot’s licence after researching a main character whose profession was running a flying taxi, which just goes to show their level of dedication!

Francis firmly sticks to the Crime Fiction genre. The main character (always male) is usually dragged into a mystery (break-in, blackmail, murder etc.) that he must solve before something worse happens (murder, ruin etc.). The mysteries are exciting, but they aren’t usually terribly complex. These novels are relatively short and are deliberately an easy read, so Francis doesn’t have the time to create multiple layers to the novel. The bad guy is usually the bad guy; the mystery is how the hero is going to successfully get out of the scrape he’s in and make sure the bad guy(s) get their comeuppance. To give you some context, my mother used to use one of his novels when she taught English as a Second Language.

Francis does delve into his main characters’ psyche. There may be some trauma (parent leaving/death when young, injury, love lost etc.) that he explores, and all his characters are horribly self-aware, so you get a good run of internal introspection. He actually gets a bit poetic within these moments, and they do resonate.

If there was a negative area of his writing it would probably be his representation of women. Women tend to be reduced to the same role – to look pretty and be a love interest for the main character. There are only a few where I can think the women have a reasonable amount of agency. Women who are not a love interest don’t tend to fare too kindly either (some are unfairly unhinged). Altogether women tend to feature only briefly in the books, the focus more on the male relationships. You don’t notice this when reading one or two of his books but when reviewing the whole catalogue this does stick out as a trend! You could argue this is linked to the period Francis began writing in, but I think that’s a cop out. You can write well rounded female characters no matter what era you live in.

To say that Francis’ books are formulaic is to be kind, but there is a kind of joy in this; if you pick up a Dick Francis book, you know what you are getting. All in all, I enjoy reading them, and I’ve read most more than once. If you need a reason to read them, I’d argue it’s the meticulous research that bleeds through into the setting and descriptions of the professions (the glass blowing in Shattered is a particular joy). Also all the horses. Horses and mysteries get a firm tick for me!

Well Red Reviews

Would I recommend this series? Yes

Do I have a favourite?

Err…probably…I love ‘Shattered’ and also the two featuring ‘Kit Fielding’ (Break In and Bolt). Also firm favourites are ‘To the Hilt’, ‘Decider’ and ‘Proof’.

Favourite quote(s)?

“Some are born weird, some achieve it, others have weirdness thrust upon them.”

“I hadn’t had a mother since I was two, and from then until seven I had believed God was someone who had run off with her and was living with her somewhere else... (God took your mother, dear, because he needed her more than you do) which had never endeared him to me.”

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