Wednesday, March 03, 2010

over beecher's, over the water jump, through the pearly gates

Here's a slightly belated blog tribute to Dick Francis, who died on Valentine's Day.

It would have no doubt been a source of slight irritation to him that most people's abiding memory of his first career as a fine and fearless jump jockey would be the much-replayed clip of Devon Loch doing whatever it was he was doing 40-odd yards from the finish of the 1956 Grand National while in the lead. My favourite theory is the one mentioned in the Guardian obituary - an overtightened girth strap resulting in a build-up of gas and ultimately an explosive fart which blew him (i.e. the horse) off his feet.

His second and far more lengthy career was as a writer of short and efficient thrillers based in and around the world of horse-racing. As I own 33 of them I consider myself entitled to offer some opinions: they were all written to a very similar formula, generally an economical 200 pages or so, always in the first person, the protagonist generally being an undemonstrative type with hidden reserves of steel which are called upon at various points, and generally having an occupation involving some special skills which he is able to make use of at some point to foil the wrongdoers. It's fair to say some are better than others; as with a lot of authors the earlier stuff has a higher proportion of winners - if you were to read Nerve, For Kicks (the first Francis I ever read and still probably my favourite), Forfeit, Enquiry and Rat Race from his pre-1970 output and then restrict yourself to Whip Hand, Reflex, Twice Shy, Longshot and Comeback from the later ones then that would probably be enough for most people, and highly enjoyable too.

There was a bit of controversy late in his career over how much of a collaborative effort between Francis and his wife Mary the books were; why this should matter in terms of one's reading enjoyment I'm not sure.

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