Sue Montgomery: Double legacy to the sport he loved

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The Independent Online

The legacy of Dick Francis to literature is one thing; his legacy to the sport of racing quite another. To have spawned the phrase "it's like something out of a Dick Francis novel" is flattering beyond belief in the first instance; but it is also a double-edged sword.

Any hint of skulduggery now brings the confirmation to the wider public that the sport really does operate along the lines of a Dick Francis novel.

And conversely, the emergence of the Dick Francis novel undoubtedly hardened belief that racing is, in fact, crooked through and through. It was a real-life unsolved mystery of the Turf, one that would likely have been thrown out as too wildly improbable by any commissioning editor, that was a catalyst in Francis's transfer from the saddle to the pen. Who would have believed a plot involving the Queen Mother's horse collapsing for no apparent reason 40 yards from the Grand National winning post when miles in front?

Francis started with stories set in the world he knew. His heroes tended to be jockeys or ex-jockeys and he depicted them as strong, brave, self-disciplined and clever. It was a successful if not always accurate stereotype. True, most jockeys don't know the meaning of the word fear. More than a few, however, don't know the meaning of many other words either.

The narrative style of the Dick Francis books is easy and engrossing, particularly those written earlier in his career. And he brought to a wider audience a real insight into the physical thrills, dangers and privations of being involved with horses.

Like most, he was at his most entertaining when writing from hands-on experience and (allowing for the necessary suspension of disbelief required to read fiction) those of his novels set in and around racing stables (like For Kicks, Nerve and Bonecrack), the newspaper industry (Forfeit), or the flying business (Flying Finish, Rat Race) were the best.

He had the enviable ability to draw outsiders into his world.