Rereading Dick Francis: the Top Ten!

0430 SOCIAL Racing[The essay for which this reading was preparation was Spinster, Victim, Soldier, Spy: Dick Francis and the Evolution of Female Characters in Crime Fiction, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2013.]

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.

Binge Reading vs. Close Reading

dickfrancisI’ve undertaken to write an essay on Dick Francis this summer, in preparation for which I am reading through all of his 40+ novels. His first, Dead Cert, was published in 1962, and he basically published one a year until his death in 2010 (the last few in partnership with his son Felix, who has now taken over the franchise). That’s a lot! I’ve been reading them off and on at least since the 1980s; I own about a dozen (which used to seem like quite a few, until I really took stock) and when things are busy at work I often pick a favorite to reread, as they are both brisk and smart enough to be a nice diversion without requiring a lot of attention.

It’s always interesting approaching as critical projects books or authors I have previously taken for granted or read “just” for pleasure. When I started teaching the Mystery & Detective Fiction course, I went through that with P. D. James, Ian Rankin, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky (many of the other authors on the reading list are not ones I had read before, including Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, so the effort there was always more academic). But what’s really different about this particular project is that I don’t typically read in bulk this way. Sure, when I find an author I like, I tend to follow up, but outside of genre fiction authors with 40 or more titles to their credit are rare, and I usually get restless after reading a few books in a genre series in a row. A good example would be Mary Balogh: when I discovered I could enjoy her books, I got a whole bunch from the library, but after racing through several, I just really wanted to read something different, and now I think of her as I had Francis, that is, as a safe option when I need some filler in my reading life. (A notable exception would be the Martin Beck novels: once I got hooked on them, I pretty much just kept reading. But there are only 10 of them anyway!)

What strikes me about binge reading is the different kind of attention it requires compared to the intense close reading I’ve done for most of my recent writing — any of my George Eliot essays, for instance, or for reviews including my most recent one of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life — or, for that matter, the reading I do for my teaching. For all of these purposes, poring over details is the essence. It’s not that I’m not reading each of these novels  carefully and trying to hang on to the key details that differentiate one from another. There are plenty of these, and they matter, often substantially. But the novels do have a lot in common, and inevitably they blur together or form, in my mind, one larger whole. Since the essay I’m working on is intended as a kind of overview (though with a particular angle on women and gender roles), that’s appropriate: I’m reading all of them at once because I want to be able to generalize about them, to discuss patterns, or themes and variations, connecting threads, tropes, motifs, whatever. The individual novel is less important than the collection of novels. The more I read, the more each one I pick up reads like part of that collection, if that makes sense: the deeper into the catalog I go, the more rapidly I subordinate the particular to the general. My major challenge is not so much interpreting as keeping track: this is the first time I’ve ever used a spreadsheet as a writing tool!

And yet every novel is different. (I joked on Twitter that so far my lede is “The novels of Dick Francis are both alike and different” –ah, the bane of the undergraduate compare-and-contrast essay!) You could say that this oscillation between similarity and difference is the essence of genre fiction: its predictability is as much the appeal as the ability of a talented practitioner to surprise. I’m reminded of Josephine Tey’s sly, self-reflexive jab at formula fiction in The Daughter of Time:

Even in that, you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about “a new Silas Weekly” or “a new Lavinia Finch” exactly as they talked about “a new brick” or “a new hairbrush.” They never said “a new book by” whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.

I do notice that interchangeable widget quality as I read these books in relentless succession — and yet I always welcomed the appearance of “a new Dick Francis” precisely because I knew what it would be like but also knew that he was smart enough to mix it up, to really make it new.