2010 has gained notoriety because of the death of two significant contributors to the genre of mystery writing, Robert B. Parker and Dick Francis.
Dick Francis parlayed a career as a steeplechase jockey to the Queen Mother into a second life as a terrific author who used the world of British horse racing as his palette. He died at his home in the Cayman Islands on February 14.
During the 1950's Francis achieved over 350 victories, but was remembered best for the collapse of the Queen Mother's ride, Devon Loch, in the 1956 Grand National. He retired soon afterwards at age 36 but then joined the Daily Express as its racing correspondent. While there, he published his first novel in 1962. When Dead Cert became a miniseries on British television, Francis found a new audience for his novel and subsequently, over 40 others.
A new interest in mystery writing filtered into American universities, and at UVM, faculty started to include Francis in Genre Fiction courses. Initially, his books could only be purchased in England, and copies shipped to Vermont made their way on loan from faculty member to faculty member. When I traveled to France for UVM in 1981, the only English-language bookstore in Nice had copies of Francis' books on hand, and that started my affection for his writing.
As noted in the New York Times, Francis drew "on his experiences as a jockey and his intimate knowledge of the racetrack crowd - from aristocratic owners to Cockney stable boys - [to capture] all the elements that readers would come to relish from a Dick Francis thriller. There was the pounding excitement of a race, the aura of the gentry at play, the sweaty smells from the stables out back, an appreciation for the regal beauty and unique personality of a thoroughbred - and enough sadistic violence to man and beast to satisfy the bloodthirsty."
"Writing a novel proved to be the hardest, most self-analyzing task I had ever attempted," Mr. Francis said, "far worse than an autobiography.' "He went about his unaccustomed chore cautiously and methodically, as he might have approached a skittish horse. Working in pencil in an exercise book, he would labor over one sentence until he was satisfied that he could do no better, then move on to the next sentence. "
"Mr. Francis was a formulaic writer, even if the formula was foolproof. He drew the reader into the intimate and remarkably sensual experience of the world of racing. His writing never seemed better than when his jockey-heroes climbed on their mounts and gave themselves up to what he called 'the old song in the blood.' "
"This self-contained world was, of course, a reflection of a broader universe in which themes of winning and losing and courage and integrity have more sweeping meaning. As the critic John Leonard wrote, 'Not to read Dick Francis because you don?t like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don?t like God.' "
Dick Francis knew that his descriptions of class and locale would have to include cars, as they proved touchstones that every reader would comprehend. Not surprisingly, Land Rovers, Range Rovers, Rolls Royces, Bentleys and Jaguars figured in most every book. When his heroes and heroines traveled outside the UK, their transportation reflected their standing in their new locations.
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."