The Dick Francis novels have been the family business ever since the first one, Dead Cert, hit the bookshelves back in January 1962. Not only my father but my mother too was involved, especially with the research. My brother assisted with Driving Force and my uncle, who was a wine importer, was a great help with Proof. Over the years, many friends and family have been used as sources of information. Gamble, out this week, is the forty-fifth ‘Dick Francis’, and I already have a contract for the next two.
But why do I write Dick Francis novels?
Surely, you might say, I should write Felix Francis novels.
Well … I do. OK, I agree, if they weren’t all called Dick Francis novels then I might not always write stories based around horseracing but, apart from that, I would write in the same style. My father’s style is also my own. It was the way I learnt to write, mostly from reading and discussing my father’s books over nearly half a century from the age of nine.
So how did it start, at least for me?
The first thing I wrote in a Dick Francis novel was the description of the remotely-detonated bomb that destroyed the light aircraft at the start of Rat Race back in 1970 when I was a seventeen-year-old A-level physics student. I then created the computer program in Twice Shy and the meteorological bits in Second Wind. And I helped with the end of Shattered. That was in 2000 and my father, then aged 80, decided it was time to retire.
However, in 2005, my literary agent called me to say there was a major problem because no one was reading the Dick Francis books any more and sales of the backlist were falling off dramatically. Readers, it seemed, have short memories and, after five years with no new Dick Francis hardback, there was a real danger that his books would go out of print altogether.
It was time, said the literary agent, for my father to come out of retirement.
So I was sent to ask him.
“No,” he said with finality.
“I’ll help,” I said encouragingly.
“No,” he said again.
“We could bring back Sid Halley,” I said, trying to generate some excitement.
“It can be about racing fixing,” I persisted.
“I’ve even got the title,” I said.
“What title?” he asked.
Under Orders was published in September 2006 and went straight into the top three of the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. It was published as being by Dick Francis although I had greatly helped with the plotting and the writing. Suddenly there was talk of another book, even a two-book contract.
“Only if Felix’s name is on the cover as well,” said my father firmly.
And so it was with Dead Heat, a book that I effectively wrote in its entirety as my father’s health was not great in 2007. Silks, Even Money and Crossfire followed in the Septembers of 2008, 2009, and 2010, each of them billed as a Dick Francis & Felix Francis, although Crossfire was only half written when Dad died in February 2010.
Gamble is therefore my sixth book, but is officially my first solo effort. True, it has been strange to realise that the great man is not around any more to read my words and to offer advice and encouragement, but I think he would have been happy with it. I feel that the shoes have now been passed down from father to son. And they fit, so I wear them, and proudly.
My literary agent called me a few weeks ago to say he’d just been into the Waterstones bookshop in Covent Garden. He said there had been a whole shelf of the Dick Francis backlist available.
The problem had been solved.
Gamble is published by Michael Joseph
© Felix Francis, 2011