Under my byline

The runaway favourite is an unheroic hero

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 29 July 2007

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey, 1899

What his protagonists tell you about Dick Francis

Not quite hero, but not unheroic, the protagonist in each of Dick Francis’ 40 horse-racing thrillers may change his name and profession, but doesn’t change his character. He is often a jockey in or on the brink of a second career, but he has been everything from toymaker to TV weatherman.

Cast as a quiet fellow with unresolved personal issues, he has to use the mental and physical resilience gained from defusing crises or falling off horses to face down criminals and set things right.

Dick Francis himself is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of jockeys. During the war, Francis served in the RAF’s ground crew, in the Middle East. In 1943, after 37 requests, he was accepted for pilot training and spent the last year of the war in England flying a variety of aircraft.

Too tall for flat racing, Francis eventually became a steeplechase (fences and ditches) jockey, turned professional, and won over 350 races. Famously, he almost won the Grand National in 1956 — almost, because the horse inexplicably collapsed 50 yards from the finish line.

“It took me years to get over the shock of losing that way,” he has said. In 1957, Francis quit racing and started a new career as a journalist and writer. Since then, he has published almost a book a year.

Like his heroes, then, Francis is a man of stubbornness, imagination and staying power. Like his heroes — like all good jockeys — he plays to win, but with honour.

In 40 books, Francis has produced 36 protagonists, all written in the first person. None appears more often than Sid Halley (four times over 40 years), a champion steeplechase jockey whose hand was irreparably crushed in the fall that ended his career, before he appears for the first time in Odds Against (1965), as a private investigator. Why does Francis like him so much?

He’s damaged. The crushed hand, and the fear for the remaining one, are a vulnerability that criminals can exploit — and they do. Pain is ever-present in Francis. His heroes suffer, body and mind, and the reader learns something of how a jockey copes with pain, and how pain strengthens rather than weakens.

He’s manly, in a British way. There is a great scene in Come to Grief (1995) in which nothing happens — the hero sits in a room with his father-in-law. They exchange scarcely a word. “Sanctuary” is sought and offered. To my mind, this is the profoundest relationship scene anywhere in Francis.

He’s uncomplicated with women. Halley’s wife dumped him, because he could not stop racing. He still loves her, but sublimates it, perhaps selfishly, by making himself responsible for all sorts of people only vaguely connected to himself.

He’s conservative. Racing means land, and land, in England, means conservative politics. Racecourse land must be protected from crooked nouveau-riche developers; animal-rights protesters and countryside “ramblers” are the “woolly-headed brigade”. But it’s a gentle touch, and does not offend.

He invariably speaks “neutrally”, “mildly” or “without heat”. Strangers like him; his enemies end up respecting him.

I tried to think of similar fictional characters, and only came up with Derek Jacobi’s Brother Cadfael in the TV dramas based on Ellis Peter’s excellent mediaeval mysteries. It’s odd how a middle-aged medical-minded monk with a past resembles a 20th-century jockey and writer. But both the authors are British, so I suppose that’s quite all right then.

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