After aging and repeated injuries ended Francis’s successful career as a steeplechase jockey in 1957, he began writing a racing column for the London Sunday Express and published his autobiography, The Sport of Queens (rev. eds., 1968, 1974). With the publication of Dead Cert in 1962, he turned from nonfiction to fiction, and he has since published a new novel almost every year. Even though all of Francis’s novels portray crime and detection, he prefers to call them adventure stories rather than mysteries. The novels are bestsellers but also receive critical acclaim for their skillful exploration of such issues as emotional healing, maturation, and tangled family relationships.
Most of the novels (especially the earlier ones) deal with horse training and racing in Great Britain, but Francis moves beyond this realm to create convincing protagonists from different professions whose work takes them to many countries. Thus, one of the delights in reading a Francis novel is becoming immersed in a new world. For example, Edward Link in Smokescreen (1972) is a movie actor assisting a friend in South Africa, Charles Todd in In the Frame (1976) is an artist who travels to Australia, Andrew Douglas in The Danger (1983) is a security expert working in Italy and the U.S., and Perry Stuart in Second Wind (1999) is a meteorologist who risks a hurricane in the Caribbean. Francis was a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II, and he uses his prior knowledge of aviation in novels such as Flying Finish (1966) and Rat Race (1970). More often, though, he pursues meticulous research to reveal an unfamiliar realm to readers.
Francis’s protagonists are seldom professional detectives, and he rarely uses the same hero in more than one novel. A significant exception in Odds Against (1965), Whip Hand (1979), and Come to Grief (1995) is Sid Halley—a former jockey whose hand injury forces him to become an investigator. Nevertheless, Francis readily admits that all his protagonists share certain important traits. All are idealists who exhibit considerable grace under pressure. Just as they are strict in their pursuit of high professional standards, they also display moral rigor (though they may bend the law to achieve a higher end). Hardly superheroes, they may feel intense fear and experience dramatic failures before an ultimate triumph.
Like Sid Halley, whose deformed hand parallels injuries to his spirit, many of Francis’s protagonists suffer psychic wounds. Depression and suicidal tendencies haunt Gene Hawkins in the early chapters of Blood Sport (1967). James Tyrone in Forfeit (1969) must confront guilt with regard to his paralyzed wife. While these older protagonists grow through their pain, some younger heroes (frequently orphaned or estranged from their blood fathers) acquire fatherlike mentors who guide them through the process of maturation. For example, the youthful wine merchant Tony Beach in Proof (1984) teams up with the more mature Gerard McGregor to defeat both brutal criminals and Tony’s debilitating grief over the recent death of his wife. Typically, while the protagonist pursues a physical foe, he also explores dark recesses of his own soul. Daniel Roke in For Kicks (1965) assumes the role of a dishonest stable lad to investigate the doping of horses. In this disguise, he begins to learn his true identity. Philip Nore, a jockey and part-time photographer in Reflex (1981), untangles a complex blackmail scheme and simultaneously discovers unpleasant family secrets and a lost sister. In many of Francis’s works, then, solving the external mystery parallels achieving greater personal insight, and the crime novel frequently becomes a story of psychological growth.
Bibliography Barnes, M., D. F. (1986); Davis, J. M., D. F. (1989); Knepper, M. S., “D. F.,” in Bargainnier, E. F., ed., Twelve Englishmen of Mystery (1984): 222–48; Wilhelm, A., “Fathers and Sons in D. F.’s Proof,” Critique 32 (Spring 1991): 169–178