by Laura Crum
My fellow author here on EI, Linda Benson, just let me know that Dick Francis died yesterday, Feb 14th, at the age of 89. I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the huge debt I owe to this wonderful author, and to tell a few stories about how kind he was to me.
First off, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell anybody who reads this blog who Dick Francis was. A famous steeple chase jockey in his youth, he began writing mysteries which often centered around horses after he retired from racing. I don’t actually know the total number of books he published, but certainly it must be thirty or so. He was the master of the “horse mystery”, he was my inspiration as an author, and he gave me endless hours of reading pleasure.
I can't say how much Dick Francis' books meant to me. They were entertaining, yes, but he also had a way of describing the human condition that was amazingly accurate and moving. Always understated and subtle, never overwritten, always genuine, Dick Francis' depictions of horses and people and how heroic they can be will live in my mind forever.
Dick Francis had a hugely successful career as a mystery author, winning many awards and gaining great fame. Others can describe his path better than I can, no doubt, so I am going to stick to telling my own “Dick Francis” story, and recount the many, many ways this talented writer and great gentleman influenced my life.
In my twenties I read his books over and over and bemoaned the fact that he only came out with one a year. When the new book was released, I read it right away, and was instantly depressed by the fact that I would now have to wait another year for the next one. And this was the thought that ultimately propelled me into writing my own mystery series. “We need more of these. Maybe I can take my background training cowhorses and use it the way Dick Francis used his racing background, as a setting for horse related mysteries.” And so, at thirty years old, I began writing mysteries, in a very directed attempt to imitate Dick Francis.
I still remember sitting in the barnyard, writing away on a yellow legal pad on my first mystery, “Cutter”. Any time I would get stuck, I would open a Dick Francis novel and read a passage or two, to see how the master did it. And yes, I would say that “Cutter” had a very derivative feel. Several reviewers mentioned this. I was thrilled. I didn’t care if they thought I was a lukewarm reflection of Dick Francis. At least they were linking my name with his.
Right about the time Cutter was published (1994) Dick Francis did a booksigning tour here on the West Coast. I drove to the Bay Area, bearing in my hand a copy of my new book that I had inscribed to him with many thanks for the inspriration he provided. I waited hours in a long line of other fans, and when I was finally standing before the famous author, I humbly presented him with a copy of my own first published novel, even as I got his signature on his new release. Dick Francis received my book with many thanks and great politeness, as was his way. I spent a minute or two chatting with him and then moved on, out of respect to the huge line of fellow fans. And that, I thought, would be that. I got to shake the master’s hand.
To my surprise I received a letter from Dick not but a few weeks later, kindly praising a few strong points in my book and thanking me again. I wrote him back and thus ensued a correspondence between us. When my second book, “Hoofprints” was published, it contained a dedication to Dick Francis, as the author who had inspired me.
Dick wrote that he liked Hoofprints better than Cutter, and that I was improving as an writer. He was unfailingly cheerful and upbeat in his letters, even when he wrote about the hurricane that battered his home on Grand Cayman, and his wife’s illness. He sent me a Christmas card every year, signed, “love, Dick Francis”, and for many, many years he sent me signed copies of his novels when they came out. He was always polite, always gracious, always supportive, and he never failed to answer a letter. I believe that he had many, many correspondences very like the one he had with me, and from what I’ve been told, he made time for all of them. What a gracious person he was, with such a busy life, so much fame, and yet the ability to take time for the many fans who wrote.
I will always be a fan of Dick Francis, and nothing ever pleases me more than to have my books compared to his. Perhaps the greatest compliment I ever got was when Dick wrote and asked if he could borrrow some details from my fifth book, “Slickrock”, which he said he liked very much. I told him to borrow anything he wanted. I told him (truthfully) that I’d be honored.
My signed copies of Dick Francis’ many novels have the place of honor on my bookshelf, and I have a drawer full of his letters and Christmas cards. I will treasure them always. What a great writer, and what a kind and gracious man. Much love to you, dear Dick Francis. May you gallop through green fields again and always.