In Flying Finish, Henry Gray is a lonely, buttoned down, slightly impoverished earl with a pilot's license, a chip on his shoulder about his ancestry, and a bad attitude in general. When his sister goes deservedly ballistic on him, he attempts to shake himself out of his rut by taking a job as a groom who escorts horses on international flights.

His life starts to change when he notices an odd pattern: grooms on flights between England and Italy tend to vanish in Italy. And then, on one flight, he meets an Italian woman who smuggles birth control pills (illegal in Italy at that time) and speaks no English. It's love at first sight - probably the only love-at-first-sight story that I've ever found truly convincing. (I completely buy sexual attraction at first sight, and camaraderie/connection within a brief conversation. But Francis sells me on actual love.) Meanwhile, Henry begins to realize that the vicious young groom who's been bullying him on flights may not only resent Henry for being a lord...

Despite some oddities and dated bits, Flying Finish is one of my favorite Francis novels. The romance subplot pulls off a very difficult premise, and the climax is a masterpiece of sustained suspense. Warning for horse harm. Also for human harm.

In some ways Rat Race feels like a run-up to Flying Finish. It also features a withdrawn pilot hero and some extremely suspenseful flying sequences. But the romance, while nice, isn't as memorable, and the hero's blossoming from a going-through-the-motions existence to actually living isn't as vividly drawn. It's also hampered by a hilariously dated portrayal of a creeper hippie. (Creeper hippies still exist. It's the language that hasn't aged well.)
Re-read. This has one of Francis’s best premises, and the execution lives up to it. Neil Griffon, an antique dealer, has temporarily taken over his trainer father’s stable after his father was seriously injured in a car crash. Neil is kidnapped by a dangerous madman who demands, on pain of destroying the stable, that Neil hire his son Alessandro as a jockey… and let him ride their prize stallion in the Kentucky Derby.

The theme here is fathers and sons. Neil’s father was emotionally abusive and distant, but competent in his own sphere; Neil, forced to step into his shoes, must gain the trust of all the employees who prefer his father. Alessandro’s father is a sociopathic megalomaniac, but gave him everything he ever wanted. The heart of the book is the relationship between Alessandro and Neil, an oddly paternal one though Neil is only 15 years older, and Alessandro’s growth into becoming his own person.

Excellent suspense, plus Francis’s usual good characterization of the supporting cast. My favorite here was Etty, confident in her place as a female “head lad” in a male-dominated profession. Though Francis doesn’t use the word “asexual,” Neil describes her as having no interest in sex. The phrasing isn’t sensitive in current terms, but the sentiment is nonjudgmental.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way that Alessandro seemed to have stepped out of an entirely different novel, one where the arrogant and damaged young man is the romantic lead, and was forced to interact with Francis’s down-to-earth characters, who either didn’t notice how hot he was or noticed but didn’t let it cloud their judgment. His interactions with the no-time-for-this-shit Etty were comedy gold.

Warning for horse harm.
Re-reads, but it's been so long since I read High Stakes and Nerve that all I really remembered was that I didn't think they were in the top tier of Francis's books. Dick Francis is perfect for when you really want to read about someone having a worse day than you are. I may have bronchitis, but at least I'm not suicidally depressed/fighting off an axe-wielding criminal while I have a broken wrist/blindfolded, chained, and soaked in freezing water.

Blood Sport is the most interesting of the three. The plot isn't as well-tuned as his norm, with an unusual amount of low-stakes wandering around looking for clues, but the hero makes it memorable.

Gene is a former James Bond-type secret agent turned private eye (unusually for Francis - his heroes tend not to be professional hero types) suffering from long-term, severe depression. He spends a lot of the book trying to convince himself not to commit suicide. Treatment is never mentioned, and he seems to think it doesn't exist - at one point he muses that some day depression will be recognized as a disease, and babies will be inoculated against it. Originally published in 1967, when there most certainly were treatments for depression. However, to this day many depressed people never seek treatment, so I believe that Gene wouldn't.

In the first and best action set-piece, Gene's boss invites him on a boating trip, where Gene meets the boss's sweet 17-year-old daughter and saves someone's life in what appears to be, but of course is not, a boating accident. The boss gives him a job - hunting down a missing race horse in America - with the clear intent of keeping him too busy to off himself. There's a semi-romance with the teen daughter of the "I'll wait till you're 21" type, of which the best thing I can say is that it's less squicky than usual. There's a much better non-romance subplot involving a woman Gene's age who seems to be a standard unstable, alcoholic sexpot, but who is then given actual depth and a very satisfying storyline.

The pieces of this book don't fit together as well as Francis learned to do later. Gene has a helper who needed better characterization for his storyline to really work, and the final action climax isn't that climactic. But the depiction of depression is very realistic, and it's a good example of how to write a depressed hero without making the book itself depressing to read.

Nerve has an excellent A-plot, in which Rob Finn, a struggling jockey from a family of musicians, is the target of a plot to undermine his career. This book is impossible to put down starting from the first paragraph, in which a jockey shoots himself in front of Rob.

The B-plot, in which Rob tries to court his true love who won't marry him because they're cousins, is less successful. Francis is a bit hit-or-miss with romance. Some of his romances are fantastic. This one never quite worked for me - Joanna's "totally cousins" objection seemed a bit ridiculous and lampshading it didn't help. I never quite bought their relationship.

But the slow disintegration of Rob's career is nailbitingly readable, even though there's no physical jeopardy until about halfway through. The showpiece action sequence, in which Rob is kidnapped, blindfolded and chained, drenched in water on a freezing night, and must free himself and then race the next day, is brilliantly done. Nice comfort via hot soup afterward, too.

I had totally forgotten High Stakes before I re-read it and I can see why. Even now, it is fading from my memory. A toy inventor gets mixed up in some mystery involving racing and... um... wow, I honestly cannot remember more and I read this 48 hours ago. The romance is with a woman whose sole characterization is that she's American. The only parts I remember are the toys, which are cool, and an action sequence in the toy workshop.
Three suspense novels, all of them entertaining reads, none of them in the first rank of those author's works. I'd recommend any of them as airplane reads, since they'd keep you glued to the pages, but could be abandoned without too much of a qualm when you're done. Well, personally, I wouldn't abandon the Holland, but that's because it's out of print and you'd never be able to find it again if you wanted to re-read it.

See my overview of Barbara Michaels for more details on her work. Be Buried in the Rain is mid-range Michaels, with some intriguing elements but somewhat awkward plotting and a less-than-compelling romantic subplot. Julie is a medical student who gets stuck spending her summer break caring for her grandmother Martha, who has had a stroke, on her picturesquely decaying Virginia mansion with attached Spooky Historic Graveyard (TM). When Julie was a child, her mother left her with the physically and emotionally abusive Martha for several years. At that time Martha managed to cripple Julie's self-esteem, and later destroyed her relationship with a guy named Alan. Alan, now an anthropologist, has returned to Virginia, intent on excavating the Spooky Historic Graveyard (TM); naturally, the romance rekindles, although the most compelling relationship in the book is between Julie and a stray dog she adopts.

This is a little difficult to describe without spoilers, but my problem with the main plot, which involves a mysterious female skeleton found holding a baby's skeleton (Aieeee!), is that it trundles along without much input from Julie, so that her story doesn't seem very integrated with the suspense plot until near the end. If you read this book, I recommend not doing so as bedtime reading. I finished it in bed, and the fucking creepy final paragraph terrorized me not only that night, but for about the next three nights.

Isabelle Holland's Bump in the Night is a non-Gothic suspense novel about Martha (yes, another Martha), an alcoholic divorced mother whose son is kidnapped by a pedophile. It sets up that in order to save him, she must remain sober, but actually the fact that she remains sober throughout the book turns out to be more of a personal victory than the means to saving her son. The son has a more active role than one might expect, which I kind of liked but which also, rather like the Michaels book, made Martha a marginalized player in her own story. This is one of those books which would have had to be substantially rewritten if cell phones had existed at that time, as interminable amounts of verbiage concern people waiting for phone calls and trying in vain to call each other. There are animals in this one too-- the son's cat and a neighborhood cat lady's cats have minor but significant roles.

The hero of Dick Francis' Second Wind is a weather forecaster whose decision to accompany a friend who wants to fly his private plane into the eye of a hurricane sucks him into an elaborate suspense plot. The plot in question doesn't really hang together for-- I swear I really did read all three of these books in quick succession-- the same reason as the two above: the plot would have worked out in pretty much the same way if the protagonist hadn't existed. Also, the romance is perfuctory. There's a great shipwrecked on a deserted island sequence, though. This one doesn't have any characters named Martha, but a filly and a herd of cows play supporting but crucial roles.
I last wrote from my parents' house in Santa Barbara, so I had to compose online. While attempting to complete my last post, I was interrupted by a) dinner, b) THE PRINCESS BRIDE on TNT, c) my step-mother remarking, "What's that crawling across the floor?" It was a small but shiny scorpion, which my father squashed with a magazine. I've never seen one in California before, let alone one which materialized in the middle of the living room floor when we were all barefoot. Traumatized, we all went off to bed, inspecting the floor with each step. Then I had to work. Then (this is the "composing online" part) my entry got mostly eaten. I feel discouraged. Here's what didn't get eaten:

Timing is the trick here. Francis started writing in the sixties, and some of his earlier books are forgettable or dotted with regrettable sixties stereotypes. And I don't think any of the books he wrote in the nineties or later, after STRAIGHT, are any good. So I'm not going to go in chronological order, but put the most notable ones first. However, I'll date the books so you can get a sense for when Francis was writing thrillers and when he was writing the longer, more complex novels like BANKER or HOT MONEY.

What makes him interesting to me isn't a 100 percent enlightened attitude, but that in, say, an otherwise straightforward thriller with a manly recuer-type hero, the love interest is an air traffic controller who likes but doesn't need him, and not all his competence can convince his alcoholic brother to get help; or that in another one, the hero suffers from clinical depression and a turning point comes when he suggests to a woman that she's sublimating her desire for a career into the pursuit of empty relationships. These just aren't the sorts of elements one usually finds in pulp thrillers. And then there's his later books, which still involve crimes and horses but aren't really pulp thrillers at all.

It's not so much the plots that make me like these as the little details: the middle-aged mother in FORFEIT who drifts about her housework, lost in a daydream, and catches a criminal with the same absent-minded efficiency she brings to cleaning the kitchen; the nightmarish depiction of a freak accident in PROOF, and the heartbreaking explanation of why it happened; and the way the heroes are so competent with their hands and bodies, but often look at love and family life like a poor kid eyeing a shiny red bicycle his parents could never afford.

The text may be races and crooks and tough guys beating each other up, but the subtext is often about the limits and consolations of competence: how it can sustain you when everything else is gone, and how empty life can be when that's all you have.

ODDS AGAINST. 1965. Sid Halley is an ex-jockey who lost the use of one hand in a racing accident. Before the book even begins, his wife has left him, he took a job at a detective agency as a token consultant but doesn't actually do anything to earn his paycheck, and just got shot in the belly by an embezzler. He's pretty depressed.

Despite the annoying use of S & M as shorthand for evil (at least it isn't the usual evil bisexual), this book got me completely hooked on Francis. It's as much about learning to cope with loss as it is about foiling bad guys, and the non-evil supporting characters are a colorful lot. There's a sicko beautiful woman who has what poor Sid can't help feeling is an enviably compatible relationship with her equally sicko husband. A woman with a scarred face helps Sid cope with his disability, and he is so instrumental in helping her cope with hers that he becomes her turning point, the man she will remember fondly rather than the potential boyfriend he started out as-- to his regret. There's something very touchingly human about the relationships in this book.


I'll get back to this later. Um, my personal favorites, in addition to ODDS AGAINST, are PROOF (the one about the widower who owns a liquor shop), BANKER (the one which starts out with the narrator's boss stepping fully clothed into a fountain), and HOT MONEY (the one with the insanely complicated and dysfunctional family caused by one very rich man marrying five times and fathering children with each wife.)
It may seem odd to call an internationally bestselling author underrated, so I won't. I'll call him underdiscussed.

Dick Francis is a former jockey and author of about forty books, all but two mystery/thrillers which involve horse racing. Like Barbara Michaels, his books mostly have different protagonists, though he wrote a few about an ex-jockey named Sid Halley. Though Francis is a better and more ambitious writer than Michaels, other traits he shares with her are a compulsive page-turning style and a tendency to make some form of specialized knowledge, history or craft a central part of the narrative. (They overlap with two books, Michaels' INTO THE DARKNESS and Francis' STRAIGHT, which both involve fine jewelry.)

These points which I mention are probably what anyone would think of if they've read a few of his books; also that he writes extremely well and convincingly about pain, primarily physical but also emotional; and that although one would think thrillers involving horse racing is a limited field, his books are often quite inventive and different from each other.

Something that I don't think gets noticed as much are the roles of women. His protagonists, who all narrate in the first person, are all men of more-or-less similar types: tough, manly without being obsessed with proving it, concerned with old-fashined values like courage and honor, stoic, intelligent but not intellectual. So the female characters will always be in supporting roles, and are often but not always the love interest.

They are often instrumental in assisting the hero as he solves the mystery or defeats the villain, but generally not by using physical force. As often, their role is more crucial in helping the hero with his psychological or emotional issues: sometimes by providing a good or bad example of how to live, sometimes in the more traditional role of providing a shoulder to lean on and a relationship which expands his emotional world. But though women are not usually central to the plot, they're often shown in far more interesting and unstereotyped roles than one would expect from a writer of male-centered semi-macho thrillers.

Dick Francis's wife died within the last year or so, and I don't think he's written anything since. It turns out that she did a lot of research which went into his books, from learning to fly to learning to paint, and was his collaborator to an unspecified extent; he said that her name could have appeared on the books as a co-writer, if she'd wanted it there. This seems a fairly common pattern, and I wish women were more willing in general to take credit for their work, but now that I know, I'll always think of her as the silent partner when I read the books.

I'll post on individual books later tonight, as I'd like to do a career overview for anyone who's never picked anything up by him.


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