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Author Felix Francis on his latest novel No Reserve

Felix Francis has published his 12th novel under his own name. Photo: courtesy Felix Francis
Felix Francis has published his 12th novel under his own name. Photo: courtesy Felix Francis

When your father’s name is synonymous with horseracing, first as a champion jockey then as an internationally bestselling thriller writer, you know you’ve got a hard act to follow.

Dick Francis rode more than 350 winners and wrote more than 40 novels, all set in the world of owners, trainers, bookies and agents. What’s more he’s forever in racing legend as the jockey who lost the Grand National, when his horse, Devon Loch, mysteriously collapsed just yards from the winning post.

For Felix Francis, his father’s achievements and renown meant he felt he needed to do something completely different in life... for a while.

He trained first as commercial pilot, served his time as a physics teacher, then ran an expeditions business. This month he releases his 12th novel, No Reserve, set in the high stakes, big risks world of the bloodstock sales at Newmarket, where he'll be talking to fans of racing and reading this month.

Felix writes under his own name, but his books are badged as ‘a Dick Francis novel’, so strong is the brand and loyal the readership 13 years after the author’s death.

‘My first book came out when I was 53,’ he Felix, 'so I was quite long in the tooth to start a writing career.’ But he wasn’t unfamiliar with the process, having grown up with Dick Francis novels, which, from the outset, were very much a family affair.

Felix and his brother remember as children being involved in conversations over the breakfast table, debating murder weapons and plot twists. In letters they received when they were away at school, their father wrote them stories.

‘The first Dick Francis book came out in January 1962, when I was eight,’ says Felix. ‘But I didn’t read it for about five years, by which time I had some catching up to do.’ His father wrote a book a year for the rest of his life. ‘I don’t remember not loving them.’

The novels focus on crime in the horseracing world, where seemingly respectable figures have dark dealings and intent, and the narrator is a character on the periphery dealing with their own personal challenges.

Great British Life: Dick Francis racing at Bechers Brook, Aintree. Photo: courtesy Felix Francis Dick Francis racing at Bechers Brook, Aintree. Photo: courtesy Felix Francis

Though Dick Francis could draw on his experience as a jockey on the track and in the stables, he regularly enlisted the boys and their mother to research new settings and storylines for his novels, which cover a vast array of subjects but still having the horseracing world at their core.

‘For the book Flying Finish, Mum trained as a pilot,’ says Felix. ‘Dad had been a pilot in the war but didn’t enjoy it. He knew rules had changed since then so Mum said she would take lessons to find out. She ended up being one of the top qualified women pilots in the country and wrote a book about it.’

There was speculation that Mary Francis was more involved in the writing of the books than was credited. As the style of writing was compared to the great thriller writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, some commentators felt it was more likely that she, being better educated, was the true author.

Certainly, as Dick Francis was getting older and in declining health, Felix started getting more involved. Already helping with his parents’ financial affairs, he first became their business manager, then a co-writer with his father.

‘I helped finish the last Dick Francis book, Shattered. I went to collect [the manuscript] from my parents – they lived in the Caribbean because of their health. When I got there the book was only two-thirds written with a week to the deadline. So I wrote the last bit. The only fiction I’d written prior to that was school reports,’ he jokes. ‘It was terrifying. But he read what I’d written and was very proud of it, very excited by it.’

Great British Life: Felix and Dick Francis. Photo: courtesy Felix Francis Felix and Dick Francis. Photo: courtesy Felix Francis

Indeed Dick gave his blessing to Felix continuing to write the stories as the sole author. ‘But it’s different writing the last third of a book when the story is already there, and starting on a fresh page,’ says Felix.

Having now completed 17 novels (12 as Felix Francis, four as co-writer and one under his father’s name), he says the writing isn’t the hardest part. ‘It’s time consuming and it’s hard work, but compared to thinking up the story and creating the characters, it’s easy.’

Just like his father, the ideas come from all sorts of places, and Felix says he’s always looking for the next story. ‘That’s how books start – you have a little kernel of an idea and then you’ll ring up someone who might know about that area or issue, or you’ll go and see them to ask a few questions.

'I remember my mother and I were with my father at the races at Cheltenham. We were about to leave but he wanted to go back. He’d met a merchant banker earlier and it had given him the idea for a book where a man raises millions of dollars to finance the purchase of a champion racehorse and then gets caught up in murder – it was called Banker. It’s wonderful when you get an idea for a book.’

Though the novels are tied to Dick’s name and association with horseracing, they have a much broader appeal. ‘They’re not just about horses,’ says Felix. ‘They’re about people. Racing is simply the canvas on which I paint the story. And you have all of life here, from royalty to the man on the street.’

Great British Life: Felix, Mary and Dick Francis. Photo: courtesy Felix Francis Felix, Mary and Dick Francis. Photo: courtesy Felix Francis

And where participation in racing involves anything from an occasional flutter to an investment of millions. In his latest book, No Reserve, Felix focuses on the auction houses in Newmarket, the home of racing, where people speculate on finding the next champion.

‘People will spend a fortune on an untried, untested and as yet unnamed yearling horse in the hope and expectation that it will turn out to be a world beater,’ he says. ‘That’s what I call gambling. And it’s a fascinating world.

‘I like to think that people don’t put my books down once they’ve started,’ he says, and he’ll even give you your money back if you don’t like it. No one has yet taken him up on this offer – a good read is a dead cert with ‘a Dick Francis novel’...

'No Reserve' by Felix Francis is published by Bonnier Books, £20

Great British Life: Felix Francis' latest book, No ReserveFelix Francis' latest book, No Reserve



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