Dick Francis dies at 89; champion jockey became bestselling British mystery writer


Dick Francis, a champion steeplechase jockey in Britain who became a bestselling mystery writer, died Sunday at his home in the Cayman Islands. He was 89.

Ruth Cairns, a spokeswoman for Francis, told the Associated Press that the author died of natural causes.

He wrote more than 40 novels, many featuring racing as a theme, after retiring from racing in 1957.

“I haven’t suffered the same injuries as my characters, but I have suffered pain and I know it,” he told The Times during a visit to Southern California in 1981. “I haven’t suffered the mental anguish they have, either, but I know people who do, and I share their feelings.”

Francis’ first book, published in 1957, was his autobiography, “The Sport of Queens.” His first novel, “Dead Cert,” came out in 1962. He also worked for years as a racing correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Express.

In later years, Francis wrote novels with his son Felix, including “Silks” (2008) and “Even Money” (2009). “Crossfire” will be published this year.

“It is an honor for me to be able to continue his remarkable legacy,” Felix said in a statement. Felix said he and his brother, Merrick, were devastated but “rejoice in having been the sons of such an extraordinary man.”

Richard Stanley Francis was born Oct. 31, 1920, the son of a horse breeder in Tenby, South Wales. During World War II he joined the Royal Air Force in 1940 and was stationed in the Egyptian desert before being commissioned as a pilot in 1943, flying Spitfires, Wellingtons and Lancasters.

A few years later he returned to his father’s stables and became a steeplechase trainer’s assistant. As a professional jockey, he won 345 of the more than 2,300 races he rode in between 1948 and 1957.

His most famous moment in racing came just a few months before he retired. Riding for the Queen Mother, his horse collapsed within sight of certain victory in the 1956 Grand National.

Francis told the BBC in 2006: “It was a terrible thing, but I look back on it now and I can say that if it hadn’t happened I might never have written a book, and my books have certainly helped keep the wolf from the door.”

Francis stopped riding professionally after numerous injuries.

“You have 300 to 400 races a year and in 10% you have a fall,” he told The Times in 1984. “That’s 30 or 40 falls. You want to have a young body to hit the ground at 30 miles an hour. . . . At 35, you don’t have a supple body. You break instead of bouncing.”

Francis won three Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America for his novels “Forfeit” (1968), “Whip Hand” (1979) and “Come to Grief” (1995).

He also was awarded a Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Assn. The association made him a Grand Master in 1996 for his lifetime achievement.

Queen Elizabeth II, whose mother was among his many readers, made him a Commander of the British Empire in 2000.

An unauthorized biography suggested that his wife, Mary Francis, who died in 2000, wrote substantial portions of the popular novels. Dick Francis had often praised his wife as an editor and researcher.

Biographer Graham Lord wrote in the 1999 book “Dick Francis: A Racing Life,” that he asked Mary Francis in 1980 if she wrote the books under her husband’s name.

According to Lord, she said: “Yes, Dick would like me to have all the credit for them but . . . 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.”

Dick Francis told a London paper: “It is not the case that Mary writes the books. I do all the stories. I write them out in longhand. She then reads and edits them because she can manage my handwriting, and I put them into the computer.”

Felix Francis once wrote that his parents were “like Siamese twins conjoined at the pencil.”

Along with his sons, Francis is survived by five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.