The steeplechase horses at Newton Abbot Racecourse look like tiny figures in a landscape by J.M.W. Turner as they take the far jumps over gorse-packed fences. Dick Francis watches them float easily over hedges. As afternoon shadows stretch across this rural British course 150 miles southwest of London, a 14-year-old bay gelding named Skipping Tim wins going away.
"Did you bet on him, Mr. Francis?" someone asks.
"I never bet," Francis says. "If I did, I'd only watch one horse. I prefer to watch the tactics of all the jockeys."
Francis is something of a tactical expert. As England's champion steeplechase jockey during the 1953-54 season, he knew when to make his move in the final stage. As a best-selling author of mystery thrillers, he knows how to turn a plot. Francis is 73 and has written 32 novels since his first, Dead Ceil, in 1962. Every one of them is still in print. "You can get them all in a box," he says, "but they're rather heavy."
Francis can expect his newest novel, Decider, which has just hit bookstands in this country, to be translated into more than 30 languages, including Mandarin, Bantu and his native Welsh. "I'm embarrassed to say I don't understand a word of Welsh," he says. "It's a mystery to me."
Francis looks pretty good for a man who has suffered a fair number of fractures: in his skull, wrist, arm and three vertebrae. He has broken his nose five times, his collarbone 12, and more ribs than he can count. He also dislocated his left shoulder so badly that he still must strap it down before he goes to bed.
Dressed nattily in a brown sport coat and tattersall trousers, Francis looks scarcely heavier than in his jockey days. He's a curious and observant fellow, confident and yet disarmingly self-deprecating. "I started writing novels because the carpets were getting thin," he says, "and my two sons needed educating."
Many of his books are uncomplimentary to racing. Horse owners and trainers are frequently insensitive crooks, jockeys throw races, and in Decider the villains own the track. "I once asked a steward if he thought my books were doing racing an injustice," says Francis. " 'Oh, no,' he said, 'your books attract people to racing.' "
The Queen Mother is a big fan. She and the Queen often invite Francis to join them in the Royal Box at the many racecourses the family frequents. Francis reciprocates by hand-delivering advance copies of his books to the royals. Sometimes the Queen Mother, his former patron, even offers a critique. "Aren't your novels getting a little bloodthirsty?" she chided him after reading the 1971 book Bonecrack. Francis replied gently, "I hope, Ma'am, you'll still enjoy them."
Though well known in British racing circles, Francis gained wider fame as the royal jump jockey. He rode for the Queen Mother, most memorably in the 1956 Grand National at Aintree, where her horse, Devon Loch, jumped the last fence way ahead of the field. But a little more than a hundred feet from the finish, the horse suddenly lunged into the air. He landed on his stomach, with his hind legs stretched out behind him and his front legs extended in a sort of V. The mishap remains one of racing's great mysteries—Francis thinks Devon Loch simply recoiled from the roar of the crowd anticipating the royal family's first victory at Aintree in more than half a century. Though Devon Loch was uninjured (in fact, veterinarians who examined the horse after the race could find absolutely nothing wrong with him), it still pains Francis to talk about the race—which may explain why Aintree has never been the setting for one of his thrillers.
Francis wrote nothing until he was 36, when he began his memoir, The Sport of Queens. Upon its publication in 1957, he was offered work as a racing columnist for the Sunday Express. At that point his wife, Mary, said, "Why don't you try your hand at a novel?" Since then Francis has written roughly a novel a year, except in 1965, when he wrote two.
His writing routine never varies. He starts each novel in early January, writing in longhand in a large notebook. One draft. "I never do more than one," he says. "And I write in pencil, so if I don't like the look of a sentence, I can rub it out immediately." Once he likes the shape of a sentence, he doesn't change it again. "It takes me a long time to think of the main character, then nearly as long to think of the name I'm going to call him. I have the main plot in my mind and a lot of the story before I put pencil to paper. Then I start, and I go on and on. I have the dirty deed in my mind as well. And there is nearly always a dirty deed."
He types the final manuscript into a word processor. His publisher in London, Jenny Dereham of Michael Joseph Ltd., flies down to his home in the Cayman Islands to collect it in mid-May. "She always says if I meet her at the airport she knows it's finished," says Francis. "If my wife meets her, I'm probably struggling with the last few paragraphs."
Though they return to England several times a year to visit their sons, Dick and Mary spend most of their time in the Caymans; Mary is bothered by asthma, and English weather doesn't suit her. The couple also keeps an apartment in Fort Lauderdale, but so far Dick has not been tempted to write about the Florida turf scene. "I don't know enough about the inside of American racing," he says. In fact, only one of his books—Blood Sport—is largely set on American turf. "Mary and I did the research for that novel by bus," he says. "We went to dude ranches in Wyoming and Arizona." The frugal couple toured the country by Greyhound on $90 passes. "We covered 7,500 miles in three weeks!" Francis crows.
Mary provides much of the research in addition to offering editorial guidance. She took up painting for In the Frame, photography for Reflex and learned to fly for Flying Finish. She wound up owning an air taxi company in Oxford, England—which she sold in 1976—and wrote a book of her own, The Beginner's Guide to Flying. "We're a writing team," Dick says. "Mary reads my work every day. We discuss plot lines and how to get certain characters out of certain situations. I only wish she'd let me put her name on the books."
Francis's literary accolades include a couple of Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and silver, gold and diamond daggers from the British Crime Writers Association. No elegant stylist, he propels his tales with plain, economical prose. C.P. Snow, the celebrated English writer, once praised Francis's "considerable inventiveness, both in plot and in technical devices, so that on the superficial levels his books would compare favourably with the James Bond stories."
Like 007, Franciscan heroes are chivalrous, tenacious and self-reliant—a bit like their creator. "I try to give them characteristics I'd want," he says. "I'd hate to make a hero of someone I'd disapprove of."
The character Francis created most in his own image may be Sid Halley, the former jockey with an artificial hand who appears in both Odds Against and Whip Hand. After dreaming he has won a race, Halley says in Whip Hand: "I could still feel the way I'd moved with the horse, the ripple of muscle through both the striving bodies, uniting in one. I could still feel the irons round my feet, the calves of my legs gripping, the balance, the nearness to my head of the stretching brown neck, the blowing in my mouth, my hands on the reins.... Living, of course, was quite different. One discarded dreams, and got dressed, and made what one could of the day."
Although all his novels have been winners, Francis believes that being a writer isn't half as much fun as being a rider. A passage in Bonecrack could serve as his epitaph: "Give me a horse to ride and a race to ride in and I don't care if I wear silks or pajamas. I don't care if there's anyone watching or not. I don't care if I don't earn much money or break my bones or if I have to starve to keep my weight down. All I care about is riding and racing and winning if I can."
Francis smiles upon hearing his own words. "Yes, riding was my first love," he says. "It's lovely when you're on a good horse, seeing the fence in front of you. Nothing could be more satisfying." He quickly adds, "But writing has its compensations. When a race is over, it's gone for good. A book remains."