Dick Francis

Dick Francis

Anne M. Eberhardt

Best-Selling Mystery Writer Dick Francis Dies

Former British steeplechase riding champion wrote 42 thrillers in long career.

Best-selling British thriller writer and steeplechase jockey great Dick Francis died in his home in the Cayman Islands Feb. 14, The Associated Press reported. He was 89.

His son Felix said he and his brother, Merrick, were “devastated” by their father’s death, but “rejoice in having been the sons of such an extraordinary man.”

“We share in the joy that he brought to so many over such a long life,” Felix said in a statement. Francis’ spokeswoman Ruth Cairns said the writer had died from natural causes, but did not elaborate.

Francis was the author of 42 novels. He was also a champion jockey, riding 2,305 races from 1948-57, winning 345 of them, according to the Press Association Reporter in Great Britain.

Many of his victories were for the Queen Mother, who was one of his biggest fans as a writer. But Francis' most disappointing race was aboard the Queen Mother's  Devon Loch, who collapsed within sight of certain victory in the 1956 Grand National. Francis retired after a bad fall at Leicester in January 1957, just a few months after the Grand National tragedy, the PA reported.

Despite his many successes, Francis had expressed regret at never winning the Grand National. “The first one I rode in I was second, and the last one I rode in I won everywhere except the last 25 yards. I would love the opportunity of having another go, but it’s a young man’s job,” he said once during an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

He would take up writing as a racing correspondent for Britain's Sunday Express newspaper. He penned an autobiography in 1957 and began writing mystery novels in 1962. Most, though not all, of the prolific writer's novels were set in the world of British horse racing.

Francis won three Edgar Allen Poe awards given by The Mystery Writers of America for his novels Forfeit (1968), Whip Hand (1979), and Come to Grief (1995).

He also was awarded a Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association for his outstanding contribution to the genre. The association made him a Grand Master in 1996 for a lifetime’s achievement.

Richard Francis was born in Tenby on Oct. 31, 1920, the younger son of a horse broker, and moved to Maidenhead in Berkshire as a boy, according to the PA. As a boy, he enjoyed hunting and showjumping.

Cairns said Francis is also survived by five grandchildren and one great-grandson. His wife, Mary, who helped research and edit many of his books and to whom he was married for 53 years, died in 2000.

Francis was named champion jockey in the 1953-54 season. His success continued until the 1956 Grand National when Devon Loch collapsed beneath him just 50 yards from the Aintree finish. It remains one of the largest mysteries in the history of the prestigious race.

Questions surrounding the fall led Francis to write his autobiography, The Sport of Queens.

Much more was to follow.

His first thriller was Dead Cert, published in 1962, followed by Nerve, published two years later. His books featured heroes who usually had physical handicaps.

Probably his most popular character was former jockey-turned-P.I. Sid Halley, a moral as well as a physical cripple (he had lost a hand as the result of a horrific racing accident). Francis identified Halley as the one he most closely associated himself to.

Francis recalled in an interview that Whip Hand, which featured Halley, had put him through his biggest emotional turmoil.

Most of Francis' heroes were everyday people, mostly anonymous but very intelligent. His stories were simply told with powerful and vivid images, often because of the terrible ordeals he put his characters through. Among his other projects was a biography of his friend, jockey Lester Piggott, and a short-story collection.

His eldest son Merrick became a horse racing trainer. Younger son Felix was his parents' manager.

Even Money, written with Felix, was published in September 2009. Crossfire, the new Dick and Felix Francis novel, will be published later this year.

“It is an honor for me to be able to continue his remarkable legacy through the new novels,” Felix said in his statement.