Editor’s note: Connie Fletcher has been reviewing mysteries for Booklist for more than 30 years, including many titles by Dick Francis.
The day before Dick Francis died, I was in my local bookstore, The Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois, and was stopped in my browsing tracks by a tiny display someone had taped to a wall for Robert B. Parker, who died January 18. The memorial was just a photo of the beefy, cop-like face of the creator of Boston private eye Spenser. Under the mug shot was a list of Parker’s many novels. At first, I thought, Talk about “sic transit.” This poor guy, who wrote so much, gets such a tiny remembrance. But the list of Parker’s books said it all. Here was a life with a huge and continuing impact.
The next day, Valentine’s Day, my 21-year-old son came into my bedroom somewhat strangely — he walked in instead of bursting in. And he said, gently, with an uncharacteristic lack of irony, “Mom, Dick Francis died.” The same tone you’d use if you were breaking the news that a beloved relative or friend had died. I don’t think most Millennials are into Dick Francis, at least not yet. But my son has seen the two bookshelves filled with Francis books and has seen my excitement whenever I’ve received the galley of a forthcoming Francis novel. He knew this was a loss.
And you just had to look at the photos that ran with Francis’ obit in the New York Times (“Dick Francis, Jockey and Writer, Dies at 89,” by Marilyn Stasio) to know this was someone the likes of whom we’re not going to see again. One photo was a traditional book-jacket shot of a prosperous-looking, craggy-faced older man in an armchair. The other photo, an old black and white, showed a steeplechase jockey pulling far back on the reins of a horse as long and black and sleek as a limo, sailing over a fence. The photo was snapped moments before the horse collapsed, 100 feet from the finish line. The horse, Devon Loch, was the Queen Mother’s. The race was the 1956 Grand National. The finish led the champion jockey, Dick Francis, to quit steeplechase racing and take up writing mysteries, more than 40 in all, some of them about steeplechase jockeys, all of them connected to racing in some way. Francis had two lives, and failure brought them together.
I read my first Dick Francis novel, Nerve, in my mid-twenties. At the time, I was failing at learning how to ride horses (my instructor told me he had never seen anyone’s knees actually knock against the sides of the horse). I remained a failure. But I loved everything about horses, especially that sweaty-leathery smell. A Dick Francis novel was like uncorking eau du stable, with the added thrill of a plot that kept kicking and characters (like his recurrent hero, ex-steeplechaser Sid Halley) who were fallen, and hurting, and very, very brave.
I gave up horses once we got to jumping over fences and my instructor said, “Don’t worry about falling. Expect to fall.” But I never gave up Dick Francis who, with Robert B. Parker, just seemed to keep getting better.
I was lucky enough to interview them both. Parker was gruff and surly, grousing about the book tour he was on, looking like an old boxer. I met Francis and his wife, Mary, at their suite in a New York hotel. Francis ordered tea, and was very polite, but very reserved. Not a good interview in either case, but great experiences. I felt they kept their best stuff for their heroes and their books.
Two of my favorite authors died within three weeks. I hope they both left stacks of manuscripts with their publishers that will come out, gleaming with promise, every year.