Dick Francis was once a champion jockey, winning more than 350 races. He was moments from triumph at the Grand National, riding for the Queen Mother, when the horse collapsed for no apparent reason. Francis left racing that day. By then, according to his New York Times obituary, "His collarbone [had been] broken 12 times, his nose five times, his skull once, his wrist once, and his ribs too many times to notice. He rode 12 races (winning two) with a broken arm."
Eventually, in collaboration with his wife (who preferred he keep her name off the book covers), he put his experiences and his passion into a series of mystery novels.
My favorite of them, Whip Hand, won the 1980 Edgar and 1979 Gold Dagger Award. It's hard to find these days, not available in ebook or audio download. But if I were to teach a great crime novels course, I'd start with this one. I'd begin the first class by reading the book's opening 14 paragraphs aloud. The Prologue and sentence one of Chapter One are very short, a scant page or so. They establish the setting and backstory and tone with a speed and economy that leave the reader breathless. They also offer a perfect thumbnail of the protagonist--his character, his background, his potential. In my opinion, it's one of the finest openings in fiction. (It's here, if you want to read it.)
Sid Halley, the former jockey protagonist of Whip Hand, is one of the very few that Francis featured more than once. His first-person narrators were often jockeys, professional or amateur. But in the course of writing more than 40 international bestsellers, Francis offered heroes from dozens of professions, all connected in some way to racing. There are trainers and breeders and bloodstock agents. There are racing photographers and journalists, bankers who invest in horses, artists who paint them. There are the wine merchants and glass blowers and pilots and toy inventors who love them. Whatever the vocation, Francis puts it at the center of the mystery, bringing it to life as he takes it to the track. And whatever the protagonist's business in the paddocks or boxes, he makes readers root for him, fear for him, and (inevitably) bleed with him.
The most striking thing about a Francis hero is his ability to master himself. The stories are brutal at times, with great harm done to their narrators. In Whip Hand, for instance, Sid Halley not only loses his career, he's maimed in the course of repeated assaults on his body and his ego. But like other Francis protagonists, he keeps a tight rein (so to speak), refusing to show the non-obvious effects of the physical and emotional maulings. It isn't stoicism, at least not with the deadening of spirit that suggests. It's good manners. A Dick Francis hero believes his burdens are too heavy to share. He finds it unkind and thus unnecessary to overload (and maybe endanger) the people he loves. If he's praised for his courage and toughness, or even for his painful reticence, he cringes away from the sympathy. He says "Er…" and then changes the subject.
I love him for it. He is as modest as J.R.R. Tolkien's Strider, going about his work, absorbing the blows of battle without flaunting his pedigree and power. He is as valiant as Jane Austen's Anne Elliott, keeping a steady smile through reminders that her chance at happiness has long since sailed. He is Atticus Finch and Tom Joad and Lily Bart and Alyosha Karamazov. He feels things deeply but he sucks it up. He might be physically damaged, like Halley in Odds Against and Whip Hand. He might ache for a cousin who rejects his love as immoral, like Rob Finn in Nerve. He might abandon a tony career for a demeaning one that helps him support a wife in an iron lung, like James Tyron in Forfeit. But however high the cost to him, however deep his losses or hard-won his successes, he refuses to admire himself in the mirror of other characters' regard. Francis writes no scenes where a Spenser basks in the praise of his Susan Silverman. And because the hero shies from the admiration of other characters, some deep reader instinct makes mine ratchet up to compensate. The more he flinches from compassion and plaudits, the more I lavish them on him. (I will never stop marveling at how interactive reading is.)
There are no scenery chewers in Dick Francis's books. Where a Heathcliff might rage or a Hamlet agonize, a Francis hero says "Er…" and turns away. This is true in every Dick Francis book I've read, and so I've come to think of the first-person narrator in shorthand. Whatever his actual name, I remember him as "Er..."
I've been thinking a lot about my dear Er... lately. I've loved characters like him in many books. Most recently, I've seen him in Robin Hobb's Farseer series, which I talked about a bit in a previous blog entry. In those novels, Er... is FitzChivalry and Burrich, the Fool and Verity and Nighteyes. The more he struggles to contain his messy pain, the more he wins my heart. It doesn't matter that those books are fantasy, and Francis's are mysteries. In Hobb's world, Er... skirmishes to save the Six Duchies and put dragons back into the skies. In Francis's, he throws himself into winning races, keeping gambling clean, and defeating cheaters and killers. The worlds are very different but my response isn't. When I see a hero strain to guard his hurt from those around him, I step in to care enough for all of them. I see, even if they don't, that when a hero's wound is raw, even a gentle touch of pity feels like fire.
There are so many kinds of protagonists I love, from clever rogues to unreliable children. For me though, with my constant overflow of trivial complaints, Er...'s self-mastery hits hardest. Dick Francis, his first career gone in a horrible public instant, clearly wrote what he knew in more ways than one.