Written by Helen Currie Foster
Dick Francis wrote over 40 international best-selling mystery thrillers touching the world of horse racing. He won celebrity status as a British jockey, even serving as the Queen Mother’s jockey. In World War II he served in the RAF, flying Spitfires and hurricanes.
Many fans will recognize that he often uses a particular formula. The formula includes a young male protagonist with an offbeat background and some sort of hole in his soul, who winds up solving a murder. Let’s take just three examples: foreign service officer Peter Darwin in Comeback, movie director Thomas Lyon in Wild Horses, and architect/restorer of old buildings Lee Morris in Decider.
Each book uses first-person narrative.
Each man worries about something missing in his life. The young diplomat longs for love. The movie director fears he lacks the courage to take risks and make a movie his way. The architect fears his marriage no longer contains love, but knows he can’t leave his six children.
Francis uses his own jockey experience for horse racing features in each book, though these three protagonists do not race professionally. The foreign service officer, finding himself back in the small English racing village where he grew up, draws on childhood memories of the personalities and scandals of the village’s trainers and owners to find a murderer. The movie director, who grew too tall to race professionally, races real jockeys in his film to convince them he knows what he’s doing, and to persuade the producer to let him create the “wild horses” scene that caps the movie. The architect still owns shares in a decrepit racetrack owned by his vindictive father, who horribly abused the architect’s dead mother, and a cast of cruel and dysfunctional relatives who mistrust the architect. After an uphill fight the architect rebuilds both his family connections and the falling-down racetrack.
Each book depends on meticulous research on arcane subjects. Francis knows how to feed us this information without making us drink from a fire hose. With the diplomat, we try to determine who had both opportunity and skill to kill horses in a vet clinic without being caught—upholstery needles hidden in horse feed, the wrong anesthetic, the wrong blood plasma electrolytes during surgery. With the director, we see his cinematographic skill as he develops the climactic scene he has imagined, a scene revealing the solution to the long-ago death of a horse-trainer’s wife. We stand with him on the beach, filming as Norse horses led by one woman on horseback, her veils streaming, race along the dunes at dawn. With the architect, we determine who blew up the old racetrack stadium, why the proposed plans for a new stadium are bogus, and how to save the racing season with circus tents.
Of course, along the way, we worry with each protagonist. Will the diplomat find love with the bishop’s daughter? Will the director gain confidence enough to make the movie he believes in? Will the architect repair not only the racetrack, but his marriage? Plus, tension builds because in each book the protagonist’s determination to solve a murder imperils himself and/or those he cherishes.
In addition—and it reflects Francis’s genius in character development—Francis aficionados will recognize a recurrent scene in which the protagonist, viciously attacked, turns the other cheek (figuratively) instead of fighting back. This can perplex and frustrate the reader, who longs for revenge and the hero’s vindication. Francis makes us wait. The diplomat, slugged by a vicious horse trainer, backs off and drives away, seemingly cowed. The architect, beaten up by his own estranged family members, doesn’t retaliate. The movie director, after a first knife attack intended to scare him off the movie set, dons a home-made knife-proof vest and keeps filming, knowing he’s inviting further attack.
I think Francis ultimately uses these episodes for two reasons. First, he contrasts the villains’ nefarious motives with the protagonist’s disciplined determination to finish the job, to find the murderer. But the episodes are structural as well: the reader finally understands the protagonist must refuse to fight back specifically so he can maintain his disguise, conceal his knowledge, and succeed in solving the murder. These books aren’t police procedurals. The amateur sleuth protagonists can’t rely on police authority to win. These cheek-turning scenes demonstrate discipline and—ultimately—a gritty desire to win. The thriller component comes as the protagonist’s desire to win also imperils him or his family.
By the time we’re identifying with the off-beat character (our first-person narrator), wallowing in the wealth of meticulous arcane research around the subplots, and turning pages rapidly to see the narrator safely escape peril—we’re pretty sure this formula works.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series: GHOST CAVE, GHOST DOG, GHOST LETTER, and GHOST DAGGER. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.