Sunday, 18 August 2013

Dick Francis

I discovered Dick Francis much later in life and it took quite a bit to get to like him.   But once I did get a hang of him, it was hard not to consider him one of my favourites.

I do not read intense stuff like what comes in Oprah’s reading club nor a fan of classical literature. (In fact books like ‘to kill a mockingbird’ and ‘Color purple’ used to leave me rather depressed and frustrated). My preference has always been popular pulp fiction. In fact I dig anything that is an easy read – preferably the faster I can finish it the better – which means my brain is not taxed much, and yes, usually these books also help me fall asleep. 

So I’ve done all of ‘em from Harold Robbins, Irving Wallace, Sidney Sheldon (these’d be dog-eared books where earlier readers had highlighted the "hot" pages for ready... err.. reference) and also authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Roald Dahl, Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, Steve Martini, Thomas Harris etc.   I’d realised how short my threshold had been and in fact a lot of authors other than these (in fact even some books by the above too) would be discarded after struggling to read the first few pages.

So what did I like about Dick Francis?  Well for one there was no pretense of any high-falutin’ high-ended literature.  The books were plain and simple to read.

The other benefit – an important one for me – was that he was prolific. This meant that I could look forward to read and enjoy yet another book from this author for quite a long time, unlike the other newer authors who had written a limited set of books, and you could get listless and bored waiting for yet another book from them. 

Dick Francis almost had a predictable formula in writing his books. You knew it was about racing, it would involve some crime, the pattern of how the hero got involved in this and how he’d get himself and his partners out were almost similar.  In fact as far as crime, mystery and the adventure part were, I wouldn’t call his books page turners – I thought others wrote far better stuff.

What I liked about Dick Francis, IMHO and in my limited literary experience – I think he excelled in writing in the first person.  The narrative would be from the hero’s perspective (always a male) and how he went about the adventure. 

Where Dick Francis rode above the rest was in helping us relate to the hero in such a way that you almost lived the adventure himself.   Writing in the first person can be tricky and Dick Francis I thought struck a fine balance.  You need to be completely honest (which a lot of other authors cant do in their writing).  So, for instance, when the hero meets a young girl and feels lust, it comes across in his writing. Similarly if someone strikes the hero as bad and he dislikes them instantly that also comes through. Where Francis striked a balance was - this was rarely vulgar nor would the hero start coming out as a judgemental person. He would sound like a perfectly normal bloke, quite likeable therefore.  You started living the adventure as the hero, as you went through the pages.

The other aspect was how Dick Francis would bring not just the world of horsing alive, but also the horses, and the love for horses among riders, owners and other stuff. I actually don’t like animals and am extremely uncomfortable around them (most animals from dogs, cats to horses can sense this). And because of this, I ended up envying these characters that much more. There was a lot of love for horses, and when he wrote about them his writing would rise – you could feel the steam coming out of the horses nostrils, its heat and sweat after a race, its pride, or its defiant aggression, its fear in his writing.  His writing I thought also would bring out how much the people around horses loved them (well, most of them).

The other thing which was outstanding was the amount of research that would go into each book. Dick Francis and his wife were fairly social people and would pick the brains of any interesting people they met. Thus there were a lot of diverse occupations of the protagonists from his books. Thus heroes included lawyers, chefs, diplomats, mountaineers, security consultants, investors, painters, and of course actual jockeys or those related to horse racing like a bookie, security person.  All of them would get involved by some un/ happy accident with the world of racing and some crime related to it.

What would come out best in each book would be insights or trade secrets that were particular to each occupation, and this made it worthwhile.  You could learn anything from common items used in arson, different practices in evading tax, to the time before a person’s brain would fail in the absence of oxygen, to common methods of shrinkage in shops, to rules of betting and common tricks to get over with them etc.  Even in these days of easy availability of information on the web, I still think the kind of insights that Dick Francis achieved were only possible because of the amount of rigour and diligence that went in, as well as the strong relationships that Dick and his wife established with experts – such that they’d reveal a lot of insider secrets about their trade and profession.

But merely that would only make his books good from say a general knowledge point of view.  The strength also lay in understanding human relationships and behaviour, and this was where lay the deepest insights.  And boy, did his books covered practically every type and dysfunctional relationships – this could be from neglected children of famous parents, rich parents, single parents, feuding parents.  This would include twins, divorcees, cripples, spouse of a cripple etc. The books would reveal rare insights in the feelings that these characters experienced in different, difficult situations (did I mention he was totally honest and excelled in writing in the first person?). 

There were a lot of good insights and I would recommend you read his books. But to illustrate, one which I liked was where the hero – a diplomat, suggests to a vet he’s just met that he just pat his estranged girlfriend on her knees to show that he understand and forgives her frustration.  And the disbelieving vet does just that and she just melts (I know it works, because I’ve tried this too!!).

Similarly a lot of situations which depicted remarkable strength and forgiveness from different characters in difficult situations would be remarkable and he would manage to bring out the conflict, the resolve and the great heart that the character showed in coming to terms, making peace with the situation or moving on…

I am never fanatic or such a big fan that I follow my favourite author or artiste’s lives and study their works with great passion.  But I was disappointed to learn of his death shortly after his wifes’ (who allegedly helped him write those books).  And it wasn’t just because that would mean an end to the supply of rich books, but it was the death of such great talent. 
I’d like to think Dick Francis interacted with his readers fairly frequently and this is where I have to admit I regret that such opportunities will be missed by readers and fans like me.  The BBC had once auctioned for charity, an opportunity to become a character in a Dick Francis book. This was won by a lady who Dick Francis mentions in the acknowledgements page.  And this raised intrigue – who would she be in the book, would it be a positive or a negative character.  Well, this was one of my favourite books. This mentioned character doesn’t come into play for nearly two hundred pages into the book, and finally when she does – Dick Francis presents her in the most neutral manner (she’s an expert in fabric, and possibly a designer) but the hero interacts with her and she helps him resolve the case.  I cant bring this alive well enough – you would have to read this for yourself.

But I envied the winner of that bid, what a wonderful way to be brought alive, and be remembered for life….

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