Rereading Dick Francis: the Top Ten!

dickfrancisAs previously reported, I have been binge-reading Dick Francis in service of an essay project that is steadily, if a bit stumblingly, heading towards completion. One question I’ve been asked pretty often when I mention that I’m doing this is “Which Dick Francis novels are your favorites?” A variation on this is “If I haven’t read any Dick Francis before, which one(s) should I start with?” You might think that, with so many books with so much in common, the worst time to answer these questions is right now, before the dust has really settled. On the other hand, the differences have never been — and probably never will be again — as clear in my mind as they are now. Interestingly, too, there are definitely standouts for me — and I think there are a couple of duds, too. And so, without further ado, here’s my Top Ten list.

10. Nerve (1964): Rob Finn, the lone jockey in a family of musicians, faces off against a malevolent villain driven by obsessive hatred of jockeys. The motive and thus the plot is a bit strained, but the book is brisk and suspenseful, and Rob Finn is a good early prototype of what becomes the classic Dick Francis hero.

8. and 9. Break In (1985) and Bolt (1986): Both feature jockey Kit Fielding, one of only two repeaters in Francis’s cast of characters. Kit is a good character, worth revisiting, and over the two books we get an interesting narrative arc involving his relationship with Danielle, niece of Kit’s patron, the excellent Princess Casilia. Racing is central to these books, as it is to Nerve, and Francis writes with great energy and great sympathy about horses and their riders.

7. Banker (1982): Here our hero is investment banker Tim Ekaterin, who gets a different return than he expects when he puts money into a race horse. Banker features one of Francis’s many strong women characters, here a pharmacist whose expertise proves essential to solving the case.

6. To the Hilt (1996): This time our hero is painter Alexander Kinloch, who prefers the solitude of the Highland mountains to life in society but is drawn into a thicket of family and corporate villainy. I’m particularly fond of this one, partly because the details about painting are fascinating, partly because of Alexander himself, and partly because of, again, the strong women characters. The most interesting one this time is Zoë Lang, a fierce 80-year-old expert on all things antique and Scottish. I can’t at all picture the portrait of her that Alexander eventually paints, and I don’t know if the technique described is even possible, but she believes he has made her “immortal.”

proof5. Proof (1984): In this one, Tony Beach, wine merchant, is on the site of a terrible accident and ends up drawn into its causes and facing off against some of Francis’s most cold-blooded villains (I’ll just say plaster of Paris and leave it at that). The investigation includes a lot of drinking — mostly scotch, and we get a lot of expert information about how it’s made and how to tell one kind from another. Tony is one of Francis’s best characters: a widower, he is broken with grief for his lost wife, while as the son of a military man, he is painfully conscious that he isn’t living up to his father’s standard of courage and masculinity.

4. Reflex (1980): Reflex features Philip Nore, jockey and amateur photographer, who gets caught up in a complicated tangle of blackmail and murder. A lot of the plot turns on his ability to solve photographic puzzles — so, again, the expert information is intrinsically interesting. But so, too, are the characters, including Philip himself, with his unusual family history, and his eventual love-interest, ambitious publisher Clare.

whiphand2. and 3. Whip Hand (1979) and Come to Grief (1995): There’s a good case to be made for ranking at least one of these as Number 1. The protagonist in both is former-jockey-turned-private-eye Sid Halley, who actually appears in four books altogether. The first, Odds Against, is also quite good, but the last one, Under Orders (2006) is one of only two Dick Francis novels that I consider real duds (the other is Blood Sport). Sid is Francis’s best-developed and most complex and interesting character, the array of secondary characters is robust and, again, interesting, and the plots are among Francis’s best. The title Whip Hand alludes to Sid’s greatest weakness: before Odds Against begins, his left hand was badly damaged in a racing accident, forcing his retirement; I won’t give away exactly what happens, but in the next two books he has a prosthetic left hand and greatly fears damaging or losing his right one. His blend of persistent, almost obstinate courage with soul-crushing weakness takes the typical qualities of the Dick Francis hero — always very human, never a superhero — to an extreme.

1. Straight (1989): It’s possible that Straight is not in fact the best Dick Francis novel, but it is certainly my favorite. The hero, steeplechase jockey Derek Franklin, inherits all of his brother Greville’s problems along with his business. Greville was a gemstone dealer, and so this time the expert information includes lots of tidbits about jewels and their composition and value. Derek is another good character, strong and likable and principled; his regrets over not having known his brother better add a bittersweet tenderness to the story as it unfolds. It’s still a thriller, but it’s also a good novel about people and their complicated mixed motives.

straightSo there they are: my top ten! No doubt this list reflects my taste as much as any objective standard of quality. Also, surprisingly many others stood up very well to rereading, including sentimental favorite The Edge (which takes place on a ‘mystery’ train across Canada), Decider (I especially enjoy the insights into architecture and building), Twice Shy (which has not one but two protagonists for our crime fighting pleasure), Shattered (with lots of fascinating insight into glass-blowing) and Hot Money (which is the closest of them all to a ratiocinative mystery).

If you’re also a fan, what do you think – is my top ten close to yours? Have I skipped over a favorite? And if you’re not (yet) a Dick Francis reader, are you tempted? Be sure to report back if you read one (or more) that I’ve recommended.

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44 Responses to Rereading Dick Francis: the Top Ten!

  1. Aven says:

    I haven’t read them in close enough proximity to declare a definitive favourite, but I agree that Straight is one of my favourites, as are the Sid Halley stories. And I do like Edge, of course! I remember liking the one with the outdoor survivalist protagonist (I never remember the titles) for the interesting specialty & the very human relationship with the kids. Those are what spring to mind at the moment.

  2. Rohan says:

    That’s Longshot — another good one.

  3. 7 out of 10 from the 1979-1989, and then you mention three of the four other 1980s novels in your supplement. So: strong period for Francis, I guess.

    Only one book from the 1960s, when he was getting a lot of attention from the Edgars.

    I’ve never read Francis! I should. But I enjoy sorting out a writer’s career.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      A lot of attention, but no win, I think, until 1968 (Forfeit, which is indeed quite good — there aren’t many that I think are no good, assuming you like the kind of books these are). Both Whip Hand and Come to Grief won Edgars. The early ones have good things about them but are more hit or miss, with the characters as well as the plots. But the other thing is (and here it’s just a preference) I just really enjoy the ones that explore an interesting line of work. It turns out that’s something I like in romances too: even Nora Roberts’s cloying Bride Quartet had some appeal because I liked learning about what it’s like to be a florist or a pastry chef. (In Nora Roberts, however, nobody is ever burned on a heated BBQ grill — the violence in Francis’s novels, though episodic, can be quite … intense.)

  4. Your top ten has most of my favorites in it! Some other faves of mine: FOR KICKS, even though it has some really dated gender stuff, because I love the disguised undercover hero. ENQUIRY, because it was the first Francis novel I ever read, and made me fall in love with his work. TWICE SHY because physics teacher hero plus target-shooting neep. And DECIDER, because I loved all the architecture neep. Clearly, the neepery of whatever sort is a huge reason I love these books.

    Francis is one of those authors whose books I’ve re-read many times…but I haven’t re-read any of them in a long time. Maybe I should dig my collection out of its box.

  5. Dorian Stuber says:

    Can you give someone like me, who has never read Francis and indeed until now had never even considered the possibility, a brief sense of what these books are like? I know that’s the point of your piece–but just a one or two sentence description would be interesting. Sounds like the “neepery” (new favourite word!) is important.

  6. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Well, let’s see. They are thrillers, and they follow a predictable but effective (or, a predictable and effective?) formula: there’s a crisis, and the hero is drawn into it, often inadvertantly (only a few of them, including Sid Halley, are in any sense professional crime fighters). He (always he) finds himself facing off against villains capable of every manner of skullduggery, from racing fraud to blackmail and murder. For readers of detective fiction, this is a familiar pattern except that there’s less ratiocination, and instead of (or as well as) a “reveal” we get a final confrontation, which is often quite violent.

    How are the books distinctive? One aspect (which I’m not going to be able to get into my essay except perhaps glancingly!) is the way Francis summons up the world of horses and racing: it’s vivid and detailed but also full of evidence of his own deep respect and love for horses. Here’s a snippet from Twice Shy as a sample:

    “I loved the Heath in the early mornings with the manes blowing under the wide skies. My affection for horses was so deep and went back so far that I couldn’t imagine life without them. They were a friendly foreign nation living in our land, letting their human neighbours tend them and feed them, accepting them as servants as much as masters. Fast, fascinating, essentially untamed, they were my landscape, my old shoes, the place to where my heart returned, as necessary to me as the sea to sailors.”

    Then there’s the consistency of the hero character (something I’m writing about) and the presence of lots of strong female characters (also something I’m writing about!). And the “neepery.” There are lots of other little interesting things from novel to novel — and some annoying things — but basically they are good, solid, literate genre fiction with horses.

  7. Teresa says:

    It has been ages and ages since I read any Dick Francis. I read a bunch back in the mid-90s, when I was reading almost nothing but detective fiction, but I mostly can’t remember which ones. I do remember loving Whip Hand and Come to Grief, and a lot of the titles on your list are familiar, so I probably read those too. You make me want to revisit them!

  8. Janet W says:

    I don’t believe this–I don’t think I’ve read Straight, and I thought I had read them all. I like many of your top ten books but there are others there that linger–perhaps I need to do a massive re-read too. Off to get Straight!

  9. Leslie Howsam says:

    Your top 10 are all favorites of mine. I like the strong female characters, and more generally the way he handles relationships. (except his character often has a problem with something he calls ‘feminism’). And the ‘neepery’ (everyone’s new word!) keeps him going when the horses might pall. For many years, there was a new one every autumn, and sometimes in late summer you’d get it at Heathrow to read on the way home, before it ever came out in Canada. That regularity was deeply satisfying.

    • Dorian Stuber says:

      I totally know what you mean about that satisfying regularity. I used to be that way about Andrea Camilleri, until the repetitions seemed threadbare rather than comforting.

      • Sarah says:

        High Stakes and Risk are both favourites, and I enjoy Shattered.

        • Rohan Maitzen says:

          Both also very good ones! I like the toys in High Stakes. Risk has another of his interesting older women characters – that older women are often underestimated is a recurring motif.

  10. Jenny says:

    These are all the same ones I would have chosen for the top ten, with the exception of To the Hilt, which I either haven’t read or don’t remember at all. I might replace it with Driving Force, just for that last scene. Otherwise, this is an absolutely flawless collection. I’d push Proof above Reflex, but that’s because I like wine more than photography.

    I like Decider a lot, too. Oh, it’s been ages since I read Dick Francis, even though I own a lot of his books. I ought to go back and read some more. Thank you, Rohan!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh and Dead Cert is really good, too. I’d better quit while I’m not reading the entire back catalog…

      • Rohan says:

        I could easily be brought to agree about Proof and Reflex. The whole idea of ranking is kind of arbitrary anyway! But it is kind of fun nonetheless. With the exception of the two I considered “duds,” I basically like them all — even though some of them have some ideological wobbles that make them harder to really like. I seem to have privileged the less horsey ones here, which isn’t entirely fair.

      • Rohan says:

        Also, as you can probably tell, I’d certainly recommend To the Hilt. It’s one of the ones (along with Straight) that I’ve reread the most often.

  11. Dee says:

    A great list containing all my favorites: Break In, Bolt, Banker, Proof. But you left off the one which I re-read at least once a year: The Danger!

  12. Tom says:

    My favorites are Rat Race, Straight and Banker. I’ve read them several times each.

  13. Rinaldo says:

    I love Straight too, but every time I reread it and reach the end, I wish that Francis had written just one more chapter — an epilogue telling us just what happened the following morning, and the details of how things worked out. I know we’re supposed to be able to imagine it now that we know everything, but the characters have been brought so alive, I want just that bit more of them, and the reassurance that all was well.

  14. Traci McDonough says:

    I see this is a relatively older article, but this seems the best place I’ve found to have an overpowering curiosity assuaged. I had lunch with a friend who talked about Dick Francis books and I was embarrassed that I was unaware of this prolific author. He challenged me to find his favorite book by the author but he had very few details. The scene he seemed very fascinated by was apparently where the main character is at a hotel (my friend believed it was in Africa) and was betting on some sort of race where the bet was which of the animals (not turtles, but he couldn’t remember what – something similar he thought) would be the last to leave a circle in which they were all contained. It was believed the bell hop liked the main character because he was a big tipper and when he asked the bell hop for a tip on the race, the bell hop suggested on of the “creatures” wasn’t looking so well and perhaps he should bet on that one. He did indeed bet on that one and it turned out that one had been dead all along thus making his bet an actual sure thing. My friend seemed to think the word “Dead” was in the title and he read it a long time ago (he’s 74 but I don’t know what defines a long time ago to him) and after researching for a couple of hours, the Dick Francis books containing the word “Dead” in the title that seemed to be from a long while back were few and I could find absolutely no reference to this race, watched from the character’s hotel balcony. My friend may very well be confusing the title, the setting, any number of things – but seems certain that Dick Francis was the author. I wish to help my friend on his quest to remember this book as he would like to read it again. Given the amount of books Dick Francis wrote, I simply haven’t the time to read them all in search of this particular scene. I suppose it seems like cheating to ask someone who has already done the work, but in desperation, I will…Can you help? Any information will be appreciated and if you can help, I, too, will read the book with pleasure. Thank you!!

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Traci, I have to say that the scene your friend describes rings no bell at all, and hardly even sounds like something that would occur in a Dick Francis plot (the main character being a big tipper, for example – his protagonists are rarely high rollers). There are a lot of novels and my read-through of the complete series was a couple of years ago now — plus I was thinking about different issues — so I could just have forgotten it. I looked over the spreadsheet I made up while working on the Los Angeles Review of Books essay, and it reminds me that Smokescreen is set in South Africa and the hero is a film star — that might be one to take a look at, since the setting fits and the hero might have $$ to be a big tipper.

      • Traci McDonough says:

        Thank you so much for your quick reply! After doing as much research as I could from this out-of-date laptop, I had kind or reached the same conclusion about him perhaps confusing two different books and authors with similar plots. He remembered the author being a jockey before he began writing and most details were correct, but I could find no correlation between that little scenario he described and any book by Dick Francis. I did turn up several plot summaries for “Smokescreen” when I added the word “Africa” to my searches, but it did not turn up any of the other details mentioned.

        I will let him know I spoke to someone who is “in the know” on such matters and perhaps we can come up with his fondly remembered subplot in another book by a different author. He reads voraciously and since it’s been some time ago, I believe he is running two stories together in his mind.

        Meanwhile, think I will buy him the book of short stories by Dick Francis for Christmas, he mentioned he hadn’t read that one, and perhaps he will remember the book he’s looking for serendipitously. He does that quite often as a general rule.

        Again, I thank you for you prompt attention to my question!!

        Regards,
        Traci McDonough

  15. Rick says:

    Does anyone remember which book has the older woman, a horse owner, who is in love with her younger trainer, who turns out to con her by paying more than the initial asking price when he buys horses for her? She catches on, faces up to her humiliation, and confronts him. It’s a minor storyline, I think the book is mostly about some other trickery of the trainers.

  16. Nancy says:

    Rick,

    I believe you are referring to “Spring Fever” a short story that first appeared in “Women’s Own” magazine and is part of the book Field of Thirteen.

    My top 10 would have to include Smokescreen, High Stakes and Dead Cert over To the Hilt, Straight and Nerve. I love the plot and the way the ensemble of characters hang together in these three. Otherwise I agree on the others as hard as it is to narrow down to 10. I love the “neepery” as long as it doesn’t impede the plot. In Banker, Proof and Reflex the details of the different industries is phenomenally well woven in and they all have great characters and stories to boot. And have to include Princess Casilia and Kit Fielding for a wonderful blend of powerful stories and horse racing. Have to agree with everything you said about Sid Halley as well. I just read all the Sid books in order and it is wonderful how he continues to develop in each book.

  17. Lynn says:

    I love reading Dick Francis. I have read most of his books. I just finished reading ” Bonecrack” and thoroughly enjoyed it
    .

  18. Vicki says:

    Does anyone know which book features the hero who went to, I think, Loughbrough uni, where he designed his own course on ‘the causes of war’ or a similar theme?

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Vicki, I went through the spreadsheet where I kept notes while working on my LARB essay, and I don’t find a plot summary that mentions either of those specifics. The only one that my notes indicate including any kind of teacher is 1981’s Twice Shy, but I don’t know if “the causes of war” comes up.

  19. Mary says:

    Vicki-
    I think it’s Enquiry; you are describing the protagonist jockey who was framed and consequently lost his licence for fixing a race.

    • Vicki says:

      Finally re-read the books in order and found the answer. It’s ‘Straight’. Lancaster Uni not Loughborough. and the course was ‘Independent Studies’ and the topic ‘Roots and Results of war’.
      Thank you everyone for the suggestions.

  20. Marty says:

    I started reading the Dick Francis mysteries years and years ago, and eventually I got my dad to start reading them, and it became a sort of (rare) “father-son” thing we did, waiting to read the latest books as they came out – a memory I cherish now that my dad is gone. Francis’ turn of the phrase, decent morality and empathy for the human condition were all draws for us. The “neepery” was usually cool though sometimes a bit too detailed for my liking. It is a shame that, in re-reading some of the earlier books, their take on hippies or homosexuals (as they are called) etc. makes them seemed quite dated – a shame because otherwise the plots and writing are largely still compelling. You almost wish someone could update them ever so lightly to make them more appropriate to modern readers. Anyway, the point I wanted to make was that I think they are excellent “young adult” books. My 16-year-old son has been reading them for 5 years now and has written several book reports for school on them over the years. The protagonists are great role models and there is very little bad language; there is a bit of sex but it is very modest by modern standards, and certainly not anything a teenager hasn’t come across in other forums to be sure! So I like the thought of my son perhaps encouraging his future son or daughter to read these books in 20-30 years’ time, and keeping up the tradition in my family.
    BTW just re-read Reflex over Thanksgiving and loved it – in part because the protagonist is only beat up once. The ones where is he beat up or nearly killed 4 or more times strains my sense of realism, but that is a small price to pay for the delight these books can bring.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Thank you so much for this comment, Marty. I started reading Dick Francis’s novels because my parents read them — so far, though, I have not managed to get either of my own children interested. I hope it’s not an enthusiasm that dies out with me!

      One way in which I find DF particularly admirable is in his exploration of gender roles: that’s what the essay mentioned here was about, and here’s a link to it, in case you’re interested.

      • Marty says:

        Thanks for the link, Rohan. Good stuff. Given the early vintage of many of the books in the series, it is indeed remarkable that Francis did not fall into the stereotypical macho male/femme fetale-helpless female-decorative ornament duality seen so many times elsewhere in the mystery/action genre.

        That said, I do think it would have been really interesting had Francis made the central protagonist of one of his books female – oh well.

  21. Dennis says:

    Can you help with the title of the book where a model railroad timetable is a de facto computer?

  22. Katy says:

    1. For Kicks. Despite one truly awful plotline involving the dated gender stuff that someone mentioned upthread, I find it miles more compelling than all the rest. It’s partly the undercover plot, I think, and partly the fairly convincing details about what it’s like to work in a seedy, disreputable stable for an abusive boss, with no prospect of going on to anything better. It’s a side of racing that you don’t usually see in Dick Francis novels.

    Others I like, in no particular order: Dead Cert, High Stakes, Smokescreen, Forfeit, In the Frame, Nerve, Enquiry, and the first Sid Halley book. And I think Rat Race, unless I’m mixing it up with another plane-related book.

  23. Matt says:

    Ive just discovered Dick Francis, just reading my 3rd one now (Proof) having started with Dead Cert and followed that up with Blood Sport. Surprised that you describe Blood Sport as a ‘dud’, I thought it was great!

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Matt – what a lot of happy reading lies ahead for you! I can’t remember now what I didn’t like about Blood Sport (I haven’t reread it since reading them all through for the essay) — but it may be that it just didn’t hold up to the competition. Who knows: once you’ve read the rest of them, you may put it near the bottom of your list too, or not!

  24. Victoria says:

    Well I just came across this thread on DF’s books. Just read my first one and was googling him to see what other books he has written. I have a lot to read, and will be starting with the top ones mentioned here! Decider was my first book loved it, loved the childrens and father’s characters.

  25. Ben says:

    I’m fond of Shattered, Dead Cert, 10 Lb Penalty, Longshot, Nerve, Driving Force…the first DF book I read was Straight, and that remains my favorite. I’d guess I’ve read fifteen of his books, and enjoyed them all. My favorite part is getting to know the protagonists. I learn to love them, and when I finish each book I’m left wishing for more.

  26. Joan C says:

    When I first started reading DF in the late sixties, what attracted me was the first person approach that seemed novel to me at the time. One reason the main characters are male, I guess. I have read and re- read all of them and just don’t get tired of them. I love the flying themes and the details woven into the story. I got my Dad and brother, both gone now, to read them and greatly enjoyed sharing thoughts and reactions with them. My daughters both have read some over the years, too. Funny, the one book I haven’t cared for is The Edge. Fun to read thru this and share DF thoughts.

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