Author of the Month

Name: Dick Francis

First Novel: Dead Cert

Most Recent Book: Under Orders

'…the writing is right on the money - sharp dialogue and a plot that gallops along like a horse on the home straight!'

It is Cheltenham Gold Cup day and there have been three deaths in the same day. One was a spectator, one was a horse that had just won a race and the last was a jockey. The first two were natural, but there was nothing natural about the jockey found with three bullets in his chest. It had to be Sid Halley who stumbles over the body and it leads him along a very dangerous path of suspicion and threats.

Soon Sid is getting jobs from all directions. Someone wants to know why their horses aren’t running as well as they should. Another asks Sid to investigate a new acquaintance and his Internet gambling site. At the same time an old friend is under suspicion of race fixing – especially now his main jockey has been murdered. Then there is another violent death and Sid finds himself in the middle of a very nasty, devious plot. It doesn’t just involve Sid. His closest loved ones are suddenly in danger, too.

Once upon a time you just knew it was nearly Christmas when you saw the new Dick Francis on the bookshop shelves. Across the globe, his latest book would be on top of many people’s list for Santa. After an absence of six years, Francis is back with a brand new book and an old favourite in the guise of Sid Halley. As with all his previous novels the writing is right on the money - sharp dialogue and a plot that gallops along like a horse on the home straight! Francis always manages to convey information about the intricacies of the racing world so that even a layman can understand the smart, devious betting manoeuvres that can occur on a racecourse.

It was great to be re-introduced to old characters and to some new ones along the way. I instantly fell in love with Marina, Sid’s new partner. She’s bold, beautiful and really mirrored Halley’s character very well. I hope if Sid makes another return that Marina will not be far behind. In classic Francis style the plot is quickly under starters orders and racing away. Readers are drawn into the novel like a whirlwind and you simply can’t leave it alone until the very last page.

Francis has always written what I feel are essentially adventure stories for adults. Under Orders certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s a marvellous, gripping read. Many thought we would never see another Dick Francis book grace our shelves. Reading this book is like welcoming back an old friend after a prolonged absence. Well, now he’s back in the saddle and I, for one, am already looking forward to the next meeting!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What inspired you to make the transition from being a jockey to writing crime novels in the first place?
In 1956 I rode a horse owned by the Queen Mother in the Grand National. The horse was called Devon Loch and we should have won. Devon Loch was well in front with only 40 yards to go when he suddenly collapsed. Someone wins the Grand National every year but only once has a horse collapsed and lost the race so dramatically. A literary agent advised me that I should consider writing an autobiography. So I started to write. I was then invited to write for the Sunday Express as their racing correspondent, a job I had for 16 years. Then in 1962 when my wife and I needed a bit of extra cash for a new car and new carpets, she suggested I write a story with racing in it. Dead Cert was the result and there followed a new story every year for the next 39 years.
2) Out of forty crime books, this is only the fourth featuring Sid Halley. What made you bring him back out of retirement for Under Orders?
It wasn’t just Sid Halley coming back out of retirement, I was too. For the first Dick Francis novel for six years I decided that Sid should make a return. Firstly because he is a character I know so well and it made my life a little simpler to get back into the writing groove with a familiar friend, but also because I still get so many letters from my readers who urge me to bring him back. So here he is, not much older than he was last time in Come to Grief, in fact not much older than when he made his first appearance in Odds Against in 1965. That’s the joy of fiction.
3) In Under Orders, one of the main plots is about race fixing. Did your idea to include this arise from the recent furore over race fixing, or has it always been an issue?
Racing is about winning and making money. There have always been those few who have tried to increase the odds in their favour by a bit of skulduggery, and there have always been the scandals when people have been caught, as they usually are. The recent charging of jockeys and others with race fixing is for the courts and not for me to discuss here. However, I can say that it was interesting to arrive in England in July and read things in the paper, which have a similarity to what I had included in my manuscript delivered to my publisher months before. But life always imitates art. In one of my early books, Flying Finish published in 1966, I described someone forcing a pilot at gunpoint to fly to a different destination than he intended. I remember my American editor saying that it was impossible. Then the following week the first airliner was hijacked to Cuba. I rest my case.
4) In Under Orders you explain in great detail about DNA profiling. Is this a new scientific area you are particularly interested in?
It is difficult to write any crime fiction these days without including something about DNA. It has become such a part of police investigations. So much so that all other evidence can be irrelevant if the DNA evidence is damning. I do think that we as a society have to be careful not to be so reliant on a procedure which can so easily be contaminated but that’s another story. Felix, my son, did the research for Under Orders and he has a friend who is a specialist in DNA profiling, so they were able to help me get it right.
5) In your latest book, you bring back some old favourite characters in Sid Halley’s life as well as introducing great new ones like Marina. Was it deliberate to bring in a new love interest for Sid?
For me, what makes a story interesting and readable is the development of the characters. Sid has now been around for quite a while in his four books and it seemed to me that it was time he needed to be luckier in love. Also, his relationship with Marina is essential to the development of the plot. And I really like Marina. She is sensible, beautiful and smart. A dynamic combination.
6) It has been well documented that your late wife, Mary, was a great influence with you when writing your previous crime novels. What made you ‘get back in the saddle’ and write this new novel, Under Orders, after a six-year gap?
Mary and I had always worked on the books together. She was brilliant at the research and had the uncanny knack of asking the right questions to get the information we needed. She learnt all sorts of new skills in the pursuit of knowledge for the stories; she became a pilot for Flying Finish and Rat Race; she took up photography for Reflex and painting for In The Frame. We would discuss the plot every night and she would read through my pages and polish the prose. And so it had been for nearly forty years with a new book every autumn. Now it was time for a rest. But sadly, just a month after we took the decision, Mary suddenly died. Our rest in retirement together was non-existent and I was left alone.

It was not a happy time for me and, despite the best efforts of my family and friends, I was suddenly very lonely. They say that time cures, and it does in so far that the raw pain of grief slowly diminishes, but time alone does not heal the hole that exists in the heart, the void that can only be filled by the presence of someone you love. Then, in April last year I was invited to speak at an event in Maryland and to attend the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase. I was a house guest of Charlie Fenwick Jnr., the American jockey who won the English Grand National on Ben Nevis in 1980. Another of his guests was a lady from Virginia, a lady called Dagmar Cosby. We had a wonderful weekend in spite of the incessant rain and, for the first time in sixty years, I fell in love. At last, the void was closed.

Felix had tried often to get me to agree to write another book. He said that he would help with the research and support me in the way his mother had done. Finally, with my life now more complete again, I agreed, and the result is Under Orders, the first Dick Francis novel for six years and one that many people, including me, thought would never be.
7) You have previously won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year a record three times and have also been made a Grand Master. This must be a great honour for a writer from this side of the ‘pond’. How do you view these and other awards?
My books have won multiple awards and have received critical acclaim, for which I am most grateful; I have been showered with honours, for which I am overjoyed, but rather embarrassed; and I am truly delighted that my work has been recognised especially in American where steeplechase racing is extremely rare and gambling is illegal in most states and viewed as a sin in the others. I was immensely proud to have been elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1998, and to have been honoured by The Queen, being made first an OBE 1984, and then a CBE in 2000, for services to literature.
8) Has completing Under Orders whetted your appetite for writing again? Can we expect more books from the Dick Francis pen?
Wait and see. I have a germ of an idea. It might develop.
9) Who do you currently most admire on the Crime writing scene – and why?
Many of my readers write to me and ask what I read for relaxation and whether I can recommend something for them to read. I do love to read but usually it is biographies or autobiographies and not crime fiction that I choose. I nowadays live in the West Indies and I enjoy sitting by the blue waters of the Caribbean engrossed in the life story of an interesting person, be it a major world leader, such as the wonderful book 'Dutch' by Edmund Morris on the life of Ronald Reagan, or some sporting or theatrical icon, such as 'Robert, my Father' by Sheridan Morley. I have many friends who write crime fiction and I always try to read their work. I enjoy the books of P D James and Colin Dexter but they differ from mine in so far as they are not written in the first person, as mine are. I was recently saddened to hear of the death of another dear friend Ed McBain, the American crime writer. I loved to read Ed’s work although the setting was far from my normal experience. He had such a wonderful way with words.
10) Out of all the novels you have written, which one would you say was your favourite – and why?
The latest novel is always my favourite. It is the one I am closest to and the main character is fresh in my mind, especially as it’s Sid Halley this time, my old and trusted friend. If I had to choose one of the earlier books as a favourite it would have to be Forfeit. It is for a number of reasons. First, the main character is a Sunday Newspaper journalist, as I was when I wrote the novel. Secondly, it includes a story of troubled relationships, betrayal, loyalty and understanding. And thirdly, the book won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award in the UK and my first Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.