Take Me Out to the Race Track

I reread books. Although I know several people who can’t see the point of reading a novel a second time, I have favorite novels that I read not twice but over and over.  There are times, especially if my mind is crowded with to-do lists, when picking up a lighthearted book that I’ve read before is the perfect antidote to worry. Its characters are old companions, and, since I don’t have to wonder what’s going to happen, I can distract myself with details.

Right now, the launch of my first mystery, Pesticide, on April 19 requires a surprising amount of preparation—my to-do lists keep getting longer. So I turned to Dick Francis, a terrific writer and the only person so far to receive three Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America. I think I’ve read all of his forty-three mysteries at least once, and as far as I can remember, they all have horses in them somewhere.

Why horses? Because after Dick Francis served as a Royal Air Force pilot in the Second World War, he was a fulltime jump jockey who won 350 races and became champion jockey of the British National Hunt. It was only after he stopped racing that his first novel, Dead Cert, appeared in 1962; his last was published in 2010.

Dick Francis on Fighting Line, a National Hunt contender

Francis’s books aren’t a series, but I still know what I’ll be getting when I pick one up. A young Englishman—bright, brave, and determined, but always modest—finds himself unexpectedly involved in a crisis (often the illness or death of someone close to him) that turns into a mystery he has to solve. In Francis’s early books, these heroes are always jockeys or horse-trainers. Later, they begin to have other professions, like painter, pilot, cook, banker, or wine merchant, but even these novels are almost always set in the world of horseracing. In most of the books, the hero has a romantic relationship, although these aren’t always happy, and there is usually an entertaining side-plot or two to keep the pot boiling.

One thing that all of Dick Francis’s heroes have in common is their ability to endure injury. They may not always know how to fight, they may even be frightened or despairing at times, but, by God, they have the grit to get up over and over after they are knocked down—and I don’t just mean that metaphorically. As a jump jockey, Francis himself must have been an expert at carrying on when he was in terrific pain, and this tough stoicism is something he passed on to all his young protagonists. A downside of his heroes’ toughness is the amount of violence they suffer, but, luckily, we always know they’ll be all right by the last page.

When I say that Francis has a standard hero and typical type of plot, I’m not complaining—isn’t predictability what we all look for in comfort literature? But my summary doesn’t do justice to the man’s spare, compelling writing and dry humor; to his exceptionally likeable heroes; and to the pounding suspense that makes his books so much fun to read. Each one also offers readers fascinating information about some unexpected subject, information that is so realistically scattered throughout the text that it’s never pedantic. Through his heroes’ jobs or interests, Francis has taught me not only a lot about British horseracing, but also about transporting racehorses by plane (Flying Finish), taking photographs professionally (Reflex), buying and selling gemstones (Straight), blowing glass (Shattered), and too many other fields to remember.

Since each book stands on its own (with the exception of the four featuring ex-jockey Sid Halley, who first appears in the excellent Odds Against), you can start reading anywhere in the collection. Although I’ve read all the novels, I don’t reread all of them—I have favorites.  One of these is Reflex (1981). In it, Philip Nore, a jockey whose hobby is photography, starts to suspect that the accidental death of a well-known racetrack photographer was no accident. To find out why someone might have wanted to kill the man, Nore has to decipher information that is hidden in puzzling ways that only a fellow photographer can solve. These puzzles make the book a lot of fun, as does the sub-plot, which involves Nore trying to find a half-sister he’s never met.

Another favorite is Hot Money (1987). Here the young hero, Ian Pembroke, an amateur jockey, is trying to figure out who killed the latest of his millionaire father’s five wives. In Nerve (1964), only the second of Francis’s books, yet another jockey, Rob Finn, is puzzled by the run of extreme bad luck a group of his fellow steeplechase jockeys are experiencing, and when he starts to look into it, his own luck changes. Straight (1989), in which an injured jockey has to take over his much-older brother’s business, is also outstanding.

Dick Francis’s last four books were written jointly with his younger son Felix, and since his father’s death, Felix has continued to write mysteries about horseracing. There are eleven so far, and they’re doing very well.

But I’m talking about comfort books here, the ones I read for half an hour at lunch when I don’t want to think about the work waiting for me on my desk but feel too distracted to concentrate on something new. Maybe someday I’ll reread a book by Felix Francis, but I haven’t yet.

What comfort literature do you turn to? Is there a favorite novel you love to reread now and then?

6 thoughts on “Take Me Out to the Race Track

  1. I just love your blogs! . . . Now, stop wasting time reading a fan-boy note from me and attack that endless to-do list!

    Love, -Bob

    Bob & Darlene Hays 612-822-0282 (home) 612-636-7518 (cell)

    Sent from iPad

    >

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  2. My mother used to read Dick Francis, during my Only-Writing-by-Women phase (about 20 years long, 1970-1990) so I knew of him like I knew of Norman Mailer and Henry James, Notwomen, and in their cases, sexist. (I made an exception for Tolkien.) Sometime in the late 90’s, an acquaintance explained the protagonist-as-modest-young-man appeal of Dick Francis and I gave him a try. By then, Francis’ book To the Hilt was out, and I loved it and went back to discover others. I consider him a master plotter who provides a good headspace, and yes, his books are comfort books for me, too…the Edge, the Decider, Proof, among others…and I reread them as bedtime reading, when I don’t want to get riled, but amused, pleased and soothed. There was an essay in the New York Times book section one year, forty years ago?, about mysteries as the modern morality tale, and I realized that was true: I started reading them in grad school when I desperately wanted to believe in a just world (grad school is not.) I have a lot of comfort books…Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers, Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer’s regency romances, Ellis Peters, and other mystery writers, as well as children’s books like Streatfeild’s Shoe series and Suttcliff’s historical novels. Just now I reread Dorothy Gilman’s first Mrs. Pollifax book—published in 1966, good heavens—a soothing return to life before cell phones and computers. I will read new or modern non-fiction more easily than I will read just-published fiction, mainly because I don’t like the violence in most modern reading, which I think has gotten way out of hand. My book club reads a lot of modern novels and I have learned when to expect the atrocity chapter and am pretty good at skipping it. For the same reason, I won’t watch a lot of popular shows—the Game of Thrones and the Outlander are too violent for my tastes. But I loved Don’t Look Up, so go figure. I do look forward to reading your book when it comes out…very exciting, Kim.

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    1. I enjoyed what you wrote so much, Julia, and it’s almost uncanny how many of your comfort authors are the same as mine–even Sutcliff (although her books can be quite sad, as you know.) One of my problems with recent fiction, perhaps even more than violence, is that it often doesn’t have anyone in it that I truly like. Another is that things so often end very, very badly for anyone I do like. The mystery as the modern morality tale makes perfect sense to me. That’s probably why I write crime fiction, because I want to be sure that good triumphs SOMEWHERE, even if not often in real life or modern novels.

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  3. I haven’t read as many of Francis’s books as you Kim, but I agree that they are very engaging and interesting. I’ll have to check if I’ve read any of your favorites. And Julia, your comfort books are some of mine. I don’t have to read the whole book; I’ll grab one of my approximately 30 comfort books and let it fall to any page and read until I need to get up to do something else. I also hate violence in books and movies. I know that publishers often push their writers to get MORE violent. What happens is that I read the first one or two, love them, and then when I pick up the next few, they are much too violent for my taste. I want a mystery like those of Francis (and yours, Kim), where the interest is carried by the characters, the puzzle of the mystery, and the interesting information included in the plot and subplots.

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    1. Not too surprising, you and I agree, Natasha, although you have a bigger problem with violence than I do. Maybe to some extent that has to do with your being a doctor–you know exactly what’s happening to the human body that is being pounded or shot or stabbed, so it’s much harder to detach. Although we shouldn’t really be so good at detaching from other people’s physical pain, should we?

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