As most of you know, Dick Francis was a champion jockey before he became a mystery writer. His racing career came to an abrupt halt when he was riding the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Loch, in the 1956 Grand National . He was close to winning the race when the horse stumbled and fell. Francis was seriously injured and retired from racing to become a writer of mysteries. In the years since, he churned out 38 mysteries, almost all set against a background of horseracing, in the process winning the Edgar award for Best Novel three times and being tapped for the Grand Master Award, the highest honor given by the Mystery Writers of America.
His wife , Mary, helped with much of the research and editing of his stories , often working collaboratively with her husband. An unauthorised biography published in 1999 suggested that she did much more; that , in fact, she was the real author of his books.Mary Francis died in 2000 and Dick Francis did not write any more until last year when Under Orders was released.
It is an interesting exercise to read Under Orders and compare it to his earlier work. I have read most of his earlier novels and enjoyed them ,more for the background than for the mystery itself. Horse racing and steeplechasing are exotic to most of us and Francis’ novels gave us a glimpse of a hitherto unknown world. That said, I found his heroes to be curiously passive, often absorbing fearful punishment only to bounce back at the end and unmask the villains. I felt Under Orders was rather different. The background seemed more detailed and the hero a little bit more aggressive than in the past. There was a different feel to the book; it seemed more hard-edged than Francis’ earlier efforts. Francis’ son Felix assisted with the rearch on this book and perhaps that accounts for the differences. Then again, authors change their style over time and that might have something to do with it.
I know what I think. What do you think ?
About 35 or so years ago, women mystery writers were a comparative rarity. There were of course the grande dames of Mystery ( Agatha Christie , Ngiao Marsh, Margery Allingham and a few others ) but most women found it difficult to break into the mystery field. Some resorted to using only their initials in order to get published; and the author bio on the back flap omitted a photograph or any mention of gender. S.B. Cooper ( later Susan B. Cooper) was one such author. Things have certainly changed over the years.Now, three-fourths of the mysteries appear to be written by women and one has to really search for titles by male authors in the Mystery shelves at the library.