underrated the case for Dick Francis

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Before we get on to discussing Dick Francis's finer qualities, let's talk about the one virtue he most glaringly lacks: versatility. He has written 33 novels at the last count - one a year since Dead Cert in 1962 - and every one of them is a set of variation on the same narrow themes.

Each novel will be set in or around the world of racing - as often as not the first-person hero is a jockey (usually a jump-jockey, as Francis himself once was), or a trainer, or maybe an owner. When he does something different, racing still comes into it somewhere along the line - he may be a journalist (like the hero of Forfeit, 1968), or a painter (In the Frame, 1976), or a merchant banker (Banker, 1982), or a wine dealer (Proof, 1984), or a writer of books on survival techniques (Longshot, 1990). But he's a racing journalist, or he paints horses, or he's investing in a horse, or he supplies the booze to the local racing fraternity, or he's suddenly commissioned to write the biography of a well-known trainer. If he's not, for some mysterious reason, a horse enthusiast to begin with, there will be room for one of the equestrian epiphanies which Francis enjoys, when the hero is struck by the grace of the beasts.

The heroes don't vary a lot, either. Sometimes, being jockeys, they are short men (like Francis himself); sometimes they're tall. But they're basically the same man: quiet, unshowy, but with a keen intelligence and tremendous reserves of will-power under the surface.

So, yes, Francis has a limited range. Within that range, however, he is in control of his abilities to an extent that writers with more ambition (and more raw talent) must envy. His secret is that he knows his own limitations; and rather than being frustrated by them, he exploits them.

His rare ventures into writing about the tenderer emotions, for instance, show that he doesn't do it at all well; but rather than hide the fact, he makes a feature of it. His heroes almost always have some emotional burden to bear - a wife who's dying or recently dead or divorced, it may be, or an unhappy childhood marred by parents who are unfeeling, or overbearing, or dead. And so they narrate through clenched teeth, in short, spare, ruthlessly honed sentences. The rhythms and moods of Francis's prose don't change a great deal, but his writing is never flabby.

And just once in a while, Francis's craft ascends into art. Any student of literature must be impressed by the discreet, unselfconscious way that in the two novels featuring the crippled ex-jockey Sid Halley, Odds Against (1967) and Whip Hand (1981), Halley's wasted left arm functions as an outward symbol of his emotional disfigurement - his inability to come to terms with no longer being able to ride, and his failure to communicate with his wife, Jenny.

To sum up, then: Dick Francis can only do one thing. But he does that one thing supremely well. Isn't that what art is about?