Dick Francis and Felix Francis
Last January I set an absolutely ridiculous Goodreads reading challenge for myself–so ridiculous that I’m embarrassed even to admit how high it is (okay, it was 200 books). Needless to say, unless a miracle occurs I’m not going to meet it, although I will say in my defense that I probably have read that many books, but unfortunately a number of them were either not on Goodreads by virtue of being Russian, or I didn’t like them, or I just didn’t get around to writing reviews for various other reasons. Still, I couldn’t just give up without a fight, so I’m going to throw in a few reviews of things that I read last year (or before) in a vain attempt to make up the numbers somewhat.
In keeping with the military theme of most of my recent reading, I’ll start off my retrospective reviews with one of “Crossfire,” one of the collaborative efforts between Dick Francis and his son Felix Francis.
Funnily enough, since Francis Sr. served in the RAF during WWII and all his books have an autobiographical element, this is the first of his books to feature a military officer. One suspects that, for all the surface-level conservatism of Francis’s heroes–they tend to dress conservatively and keep their hair aggressively short, as well as distancing themselves from political activism of all stripes, especially left-wing, and even long-haired, hippy painter Alex Kincaid, from “To the Hilt,” is motivated primarily by duty, family, and honor –Francis himself was at heart a rebel and a free spirit, something that comes across in his heroes’ preference for self-employment and vigilante justice. Government employees and military men tend to be secondary subjects of satire rather than central heroes.
Anyway, Tom Forsyth from “Crossfire” breaks with that pattern, as he is “married to the military”–until, that is, an unfortunate encounter with an IED in Afghanistan deprives him of one of his feet, along with his military career. Depressed, angry, and unwilling to accept his fate–Tom is one of the angrier, edgier heroes of the Francis oeuvre–he returns to live with his estranged mother in Lambourn until he can get back on his feet, so to speak, only to discover that his mother is neck-deep in trouble and in need of his help.
I admit that I approached the Dick & Felix collaborations with a mixture of interest and trepidation. Dick Francis is probably one of the most formative authors of my reading life, I’m not even ashamed to admit, and sometimes when I reread his works I marvel at how much they’ve influenced my own stylistic and narrative choices, and probably basic worldview as well. So how would these later, co-written books, hold up?
It must be noted, though, that all of Francis’s works were family affairs: as he revealed following her death, his wife Mary was always an integral part of his writing process, up to and including getting a pilot’s license and running her own air taxi service as part of the research for “Rat Race.” The author “Dick Francis” was really a collaboration between Richard and Mary Francis; in partnering with his son, Francis Sr. is simply continuing on with the tradition.
That being said, for me the Richard & Mary collaborations were the superior product. Of course, they were the superior product to at least 90% of what was out there, so that’s a high bar to meet. The Richard & Felix collaborations are, in my opinion, lacking a certain…sense of taste and timing, I would say, for want of a way to explain it any better. The basic elements are all there, but the word choices don’t sparkle quite as much, and the plots don’t have that muscular pacing that I had always assumed was the result of Francis Sr.’s experience as a jockey. And it’s particularly odd/interesting that those are the things that I find missing in these later books, as they are the things you’d think an editor would have the easiest time adding. But no…
Anyway, all that aside, fans of the mystery genre and the Francis version of it are likely to enjoy “Crossfire” nonetheless. It has all the elements one would expect: a damaged, disabled (most of Francis’s heroes struggle with some sort of temporary or permanent disability) hero trying to figure out what to do with his life now that the thing he values most has been taken away from him; skullduggery and evildoing in the racing industry; a femme fatale; and vast quantities of information on subjects as varied as horse racing (of course), the British tax code, the British military and officer training thereof, military tactics and the maxims of Sun Tzu, photography, diabetes, and a number of other things as well.
It’s a little hard to decide whether some of the stuff that appears is tired recycling of old material, or a nod to some of the Francis classics: is Tom’s struggle with his prosthetic limb and his involvement with a woman with a penchant for some light BDSM a nod to Sid Halley? Is his night spent tied up in a stall a deliberate reworking of Rob Finn’s (of “Nerve”) harrowing night under similar circumstances? Or are there only so many ways that a hero can be captured and detained in a stable?
“Crossfire” is, while not free of flaws, a very enjoyable book, at least if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s also a very enlightening book, as it is rather like reading a Francis novel with the cover off and all the inner workings exposed. And at its heart it still has something very real–Tom’s disaffection and rage at what has happened to him, and his despair at the loss of his old life. I wouldn’t suggest that readers take it as the acme and epitome of the Francis brand, but if you’ve never read anything by Francis before, this is as good an introduction as anything else, and if you are a long-time Francis fan like I am, it will give you the fix you’re craving, while also perhaps revealing some of the structure behind what appeared to be the effortless Francis magic.