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.)