I didn’t read mystery novels until I was about thirty. Dick Francis brought me in. I had a four-hour commute that year, and I was developing a serious addiction to audio books. In those long hours, I learned that I love Dick Francis because he treated his readers like adults.
I’m not a horse person either. I think a lot of readers are drawn to his work because he writes about that world so well. Not me. No, I like the way he writes about evil.
Evil works its way throughout his novels, and he captures its petty smallness so well. It is not a maniacal genius who is going to do you in, in a Dick Francis novel, but someone who just wants to win office or someone who wants to make a little more money at the horse races. The villains are not towering men who control the world. They are pathetic and petty, and they use whatever little power they have to hurt people in their lives.
It sounded familiar to me. It sounded like all the evil I’d ever come face to face with in my life. He was treating me like an adult exploring issues that were relevant in a real manner -- things that I’d encountered and never fully understood.
And he explored the idea of good too. His protagonists were good guys, deep down, but they weren’t sure of themselves. They never had complete clarity on their morality. They were just muddling through life trying to do the right thing at the right time. Often, they were underinformed and worried that maybe they were on the wrong side.
The race track made sense to them. On a horse, they only needed to ride. They had clarity, and that’s the way they liked it. They would ride their hardest and their best even if doing so meant they would have to take a ten pound penalty in a more important race. So the race track became a larger metaphor for who they wanted to be not necessarily who they were.
That too sounded familiar to me. So much of our lives, we are under-informed and hoping that we’re making the right choices -- worried that we’re on the wrong side, and it’s such a relief when we find our own race tracks.
Stephen King once said that we write to recapture the feeling we had when we read our favorite authors, and that’s certainly true for me. My own crime novels are in loving response to Dick Francis and a couple of other writers, like Lawrence Block and Robert Barnard.
It’s wonderful when just the right novel hits you at just the right moment when you’re feeling just the right thing. It changes you.
Dick Francis certainly did that for me.