Dick Francis, 89

Dick Francis, British jockey turned popular mystery author, dies at 89

Above, Dick Francis rides the Queen Mother's horse in 1969. As a jockey in Britain after World War II, he won about 350 races during a nine-year career.
Above, Dick Francis rides the Queen Mother's horse in 1969. As a jockey in Britain after World War II, he won about 350 races during a nine-year career. (Courtesy Of Harper & Row)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dick Francis, 89, a champion jockey for the British royal family who turned to writing crime fiction and helped launch an immensely popular sub-genre of mysteries set in the horse-racing world, died Feb. 14 at a home he kept in the Cayman Islands. No cause of death was reported, but he had prostate cancer diagnosed in the mid-1990s.

In a career spanning four decades and 42 novels, Mr. Francis sold more than 60 million books. His protagonists, often former jockeys themselves, caromed through page-turning murder plots and ruthless kidnapping schemes. They endured impossibly excruciating torture but solved the mystery, nabbed the bad-guy and usually got the girl.

Reviewers said Mr. Francis captured the authentic smells, sounds and sights of the racetrack. Author Carol Flake once wrote in the New York Times that Mr. Francis's plots moved so quickly that "one is tempted to handicap his books rather than review them, assigning each a speed rating and a weight allowance."

As a jockey in Britain after World War II, he won about 350 races during his nine-year career and was Champion Jockey of the 1953-54 season. His success led the Queen Mother to retain him as her jockey for the 1956 Grand National at Aintree, one of steeplechasing's top races.

Mr. Francis often said that if a mystery had not unfolded literally underneath his feet at the Grand National during the mid-1950s, he might have never started writing at all.

Known as one of the most challenging events for horse and man, the four-mile, 856-yard course is filled with tall jumps that if not cleared properly often lead to fatal crashes. Mr. Francis and his mount, Devon Loch, had survived the course and were in the lead strides away from the finish when the big, brown gelding suddenly collapsed in a heap. After the incident, the horse stood up, apparently uninjured and healthy.

News of the spectacular spill spread across Britain, where photos of the horse splayed out on the turf accompanied many front-page news stories.

Mr. Francis, then 37, retired from race riding months later, citing a body too plagued by injuries -- including six collar-bone breaks, five nose breaks, a fractured skull, a broken back and dislocated shoulders. He once suffered a gash on his face after a horse stepped on it.

His fame as Britain's favorite failed hero led an agent to push him to write his autobiography, "The Sport of Queens," which came out in 1957 to positive reviews.

He began writing for London's Sunday Express that year as an expert racing correspondent, an arrangement that continued for 16 years.

Inspired by the success of his autobiography, and the slim wages of journalism work, Mr. Francis decided to write a crime mystery about a jockey who is killed in the middle of a race. "Dead Cert" came out in 1962, and since then Mr. Francis wrote about a book a year.

Reviewers sometimes called his writing formulaic and genre specific. But critic John Leonard, writing in the New York Times, said: "Not to read Dick Francis because you don't like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don't like God."

His books were devoured by millions, and fans took pride in Mr. Francis's attention to detail and realism.

Among his supporters was the Queen Mother, whom Mr. Francis sent an advance copy of each of his books before they were published. She'd return the favor with a handwritten note reviewing the work.

"How do you think these stories up?" she once wrote to him. "You're getting more bloodthirsty than ever."

The answer was simple. Throughout his career, Mr. Francis often went to the track with his "eyes and ears open." An idea for a plot twist in one of his books -- a rare swine disease that kills several top race horses -- was suggested to him by a veterinarian.

Richard Stanley Francis was born Oct. 31, 1920, near Tenby in South Wales. His father was a professional steeplechase jockey and later a stable manager.

Mr. Francis would write his books sentence by sentence in longhand. His wife, the former Mary Brenchley, who died in 2000, edited and proofread his novels and helped him with his research. For his books "Flying Finish" (1966) and "Rat Race" (1970), which involve scenes on an aircraft, Mr. Francis did not just fall back on his years as a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II. He enrolled his wife in flying lessons to make sure he'd written authentic passages about taking the controls of an airplane mid-flight.

Mr. Francis won many awards for his writing, including the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award an unprecedented three times.

After he was widowed, Mr. Francis did not write for some time. Recently he began releasing titles co-authored with his son Felix. Their latest book, "Even Money," came out in September. Their next, "Crossfire," is scheduled to be released later this year.

In addition to Felix, survivors include another son, Merrick.

Before Mr. Francis began his writing career, he was unsure whether he'd be remembered for much else besides riding Devon Loch, the Queen Mother's fallen horse.

"I heard one man say to another, a little while ago, 'Who did you say that was? Dick Francis? Oh yes, he's the man who didn't win the National,' " Mr. Francis wrote in his autobiography. "What an epitaph!"

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