I have every book he’s ever written – with the exception of his autobiography, the biography of Lester Piggott and those he co-wrote with his son in later years – although I have read them too. But his solo thrillers, they’re now all safe and snug – on my kindle.
My father had every copy in his bookcase, most of them in hardback, for they were the “go to” gift he wanted each year. As children, we insisted on a strict rotation for who would get him the cherished gift. Not just because they were his most desired gift, but because the giver got first dibs on reading the book after Dad had finished. For we all loved them.
I’ve oft wondered how they became my comfort reads. Me – who prefers literary fiction, who loves most Man Booker winners and a large number of those short-listed. It makes no sense at all.
My father told me recently that they were commended to him by his mother. My grandparents were keen race-goers, owners and breeders – of horses for flat racing, that is. Not here, but in India, where they lived for many years. They had a large stable and some of my earliest memories include going to evening stables, watching early morning training at the track, in particular when the young horses – bachchas – were taught how to use the starting gates. Bachcha is Hindi for young child by the way, and that is how my grandparents regarded their horses. We were brought up to recognise and love each of them too. When they retired and moved to Europe, they continued to follow racing and that brought Dick Francis to my grandmother’s notice … as a reader. She liked him. She gave my father his first one, my father liked him too. And the rest – as they say – is history.
So, who is Dick Francis? Ex-jockey, ex-Champion jockey in fact. Infamous for being aboard the Queen Mother’s horse Devon Loch who oh-so-nearly won the Grand National in 1956, except for an extraordinary and unexplained collapse just before the finish line. He went on to be a prolific writer of thrillers, often – but not exclusively – based in the horse world. His wife, Mary, was credited with being his researcher, although later gossip suggested that she did a great deal more than that. Her research was legendary with just two examples – it led her to obtain a private pilot’s licence and set up an air-taxi service as featured in “Rat Race”, and becoming an accomplished photographer with her own darkroom in order to fully research “Reflex”. With such a terrific support, Dick Francis was able to produce a book a year. Research started in late summer and by January, Francis would sit down to write, meeting his publisher’s May deadline. But Francis, himself, viewed them as a unit – he was known to family as Richard and she was Mary – to him, the pair of them made up the brand that was Dick Francis.
Dick Francis heroes were always a certain type of chap – regardless of their career – resiliant, reticent, stubbornly independent, decent and honourable. And they always got the girl. One or two of the books are quite dark but, mostly, they’re undisturbing fare and I’ve read them, re-read them, and re-read them.
My initial plan was to wait till I inherited all Dad’s hardbacks but, with the advent of kindles, the thought of having them always on hand was simply too appealing. So I’ve been buying them up, a few every now and again, for quite a while. I do hope that didn’t cause the Amazon price to fluctuate wildly for others.
Recent re-reads on my kindle have been as satisfying as always, proving that knowing what you’re going to get isn’t always a bad thing. Even when remembering everything before it happens. But in some, I don’t. I found one recently that I couldn’t recall, and the re-read told me that I’d probably not have been quite so drawn to read other offerings if I’d read it now “as new”.
The result of my musing is it’s the fact they form such a big part of my history that gives them their status. I’ve read them through pretty much every illness or injury, they’ve been my constant companions through some dark and lonely times. I still find their comfort read status strange – for they’re not great literature, they don’t weave complex and tangled webs as do some successful thrillers writers – but they are satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very decent reads, they’ve sold far too many copies and won too many awards to be otherwise. It’s just … unexpected, for I do truly love them.
Maybe it’s because if I was the girl, I’d like to bag me a Dick Francis hero …
© Debra Carey, 2017