Dick Francis’ death in February inspired me to reread everything of his that’s on the shelf in the Homer Public Library.
To the Hilt is still my favorite. Painter Alexander Kinloch, nephew of a Scottish earl, is summoned from his aerie in Scotland by his mother to tend to his step-father, whose prosperous brewery has been ripped off to insolvency by its disappeared comptroller. There are wonderful characters, contained but loving mother Vivienne, dithery but honorable step-father Ivan, proud, stubborn, hilarious uncle Himself, viperous but charming step-sister Patsy and her execrable husband Surtees, and one of the more capable and most amusing sidekicks ever, the private investigative team of Young and Uttley. Francis’ villains are never that obscure, by their mark of Cane-ish behavior shall ye know them, but the creation of the portrait of Zoe Lang is mesmerizing and revelatory, both for the window on the technical side of the craft of painting and the agony it puts the artist through.
Reflex, Straight, Banker, Proof, Decider and Longshot are also wonderful. Yeah, Francis was a jockey and there is always a horse around somewhere but the books are often only peripherally about racing. Part of the fascination of his novels lies in the different worlds he explores in each of them, painting in To the Hilt, photography in Reflex, gemstones in Straight, venture capitalism in Banker, wine in Proof, architecture in Decider, and the art of survival in Longshot.
Francis writes pretty much the same character every time, first person male, young, stubborn, honest, honorable, never a whiner, always calm and cool in a crisis and on occasion astonishingly forgiving. Maybe it’s always the same narrator, but it’s someone you want to spend time with, and the writing is excellent. Read Proof for the telephone conversation between English Tony and French Henri, a definitive illustration in less than two pages of the differences between those two nations. You will come away a novitiate to the Church of Francis.