Dick Francis thrillers 'were ghost written by wife'

John Davison
Wednesday 20 October 1999 00:00

It is a teeming fictional landscape of doping, bungs, intrigue and betting scams, and it has been faithfully recorded for almost 40 years. But now, it seems, the racing world of Dick Francis has one more secret to yield - much of the work on his best-selling novels was actually done by his wife, Mary.

It is a teeming fictional landscape of doping, bungs, intrigue and betting scams, and it has been faithfully recorded for almost 40 years. But now, it seems, the racing world of Dick Francis has one more secret to yield - much of the work on his best-selling novels was actually done by his wife, Mary.

The extraordinary claim is made in a new biography of the Queen Mother's jockey-turned-favourite author and will send a ripple of astonishment, and not a little amusement, through the real world of racing. For where fans have always seen the hand of Francis the true professional behind the vividly drawn scenes, many could actually have been written by a former schoolteacher who is rather frightened of horses.

The new book, A Racing Life , was written by Graham Lord who is a former literary editor of the Sunday Express where Francis used to write a racing column. He has known the couple for nearly 30 years, and interviewed them several times.

His opening chapter quotes former employees of Mr Francis's publisher, Michael Joseph, other friends and authors to back his theory that the largely uneducated jockey couldn't possibly have written the novels on his own.

Olivia Kahn was a reader for Harper and Row, which published 17 Dick Francis novels in the US, and is the sister of Joan Kahn who edited the books. She told Mr Lord: "Joan got letters from Dick, and the person who wrote those letters could not in my view have been the person who wrote the books. I can't think of any other situation in which this - deception is the wrong word - in which this kind of collaboration was kept under cover."

Most persuasive is an account of a conversation he had with Mary Francis following an interview with her husband in 1980, when he asked her directly if she had written the books.

"That's an impossible question to answer," she said. "Yes, Dick would like me to have all the credit for them but believe me, Graham, it's much better for everyone, including the readers, to think that he writes them because they're taut, masculine books that might otherwise lose their credibility."

She begged Mr Lord not to mention this in his article, and he didn't, because he had no wish to damage their careers. But he did keep the notes from the conversation and now he thinks it is about time the truth was told, and she enjoyed some credit for her literary efforts.

"I don't think she wrote them entirely," said Mr Lord yesterday. "What I'm getting at is that Mary certainly has contributed a great deal more than anyone's ever previously suspected, and that Dick himself would like her to get very much more credit for the books."

Given their respective backgrounds, it is not hard to see where this idea came from. Mr Francis left school at 15 with no qualifications after a very rudimentary education from which he played truant a lot. Mrs Francis was always an avid reader and writer who got a degree in French and English at 19 after only two year's study, and who later worked as a publisher's reader.

It was also she, according to the book, who encouraged Mr Francis to embark on his autobiography, The Sport of Queens , in 1956 after herself turning down the offer of a ghost writer. The final line of acknowledgements in that book reads: "And to Mary, my wife, for more than she will allow me to say."

Mr Lord is less sure about how their collaborative relationship has worked over all this time. "The only people who really know are Dick and Mary themselves," he said. "Does one of them perhaps write the first chapter and the other one criticises it, or do they talk about the plots in advance and work it out really carefully? Nobody can possibly know, except perhaps their editor at Michael Joseph."

But there were no clues coming from either the family or the firm yesterday. After issuing an initial denial, the publishers refused to make any comment at all and referred enquiries to Felix Francis, the couple's younger son and business manager.

"I have no wish to comment on it," he said. "I will issue a statement when the book is published, as will my father."

However it has worked, the success of the books has been phenomenal. They have been published in 35 languages, sold 60 million copies and won a number of prizes. They have also been admired by literary luminaries such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. Mr Francis will be 79 at the end of this month, and is planning to write one more novel for publication next autumn.

One part of the relationship is clear to Mr Lord - that it was Dick Francis who contributed all the know-how about racing and its skullduggery. He rose through the ranks of the sport to become champion jump-jockey, and shot to unfortunate world fame in the 1956 Grand National when Devon Loch, the Queen Mother's horse that he was riding, inexplicably fell fell on the final run-in while leading the field by lengths.

Mrs Francis, on the other hand, was never very interested in horses. "I think she was a bit frightened of them," said Mr Lord. "She went racing with Dick during his racing career, but only as she said to pick up the pieces when he fell off. As soon as he retired, she stopped going."

This, he says, is one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole story, "that a woman who didn't particularly like horses or racing should have been so closely involved in the production of the most successful racing thrillers ever".

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