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Dick Francis Part Three: Retirement, Research, and Reward

Updated on October 22, 2011
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Barbara Anne Helberg is a Fiction freelancer, Internet writer, WordPress blogger, former Journalist, and a Famous Writers School graduate.

Dick Francis published "Under Orders" in 2006, after a six-year hiatus.
Dick Francis published "Under Orders" in 2006, after a six-year hiatus. | Source


After the shattering experience of losing his life-mate, his wife, Mary, British author Dick Francis silenced his thriller-writing pen for six years.

From 1962 through 2000, the year Mary died, Francis had written 38 mystery-thrillers, his autobiography, a non-fiction book with the famous jockey Lester Piggott receiving top billing, and a book of short stories, 1998's Field of Thirteen.

Francis retired from steeplechase jockeying ten years into the profession, when injuries grounded him.

Mary died on September 30, 2000, the victim of a heart attack, cradled by her husband of 53 years. After her death, Francis declared in an interview for the New York Times, "She was the moving force behind my writing," and he indicated he might retire from writing, according to an article entitled "Out To Pasture?" pubished November 10, 2000, by the Toledo Blade newspaper, Toledo, Ohio, and written by Mary Campbell of the Associated Press.

"So much of my work was her," he reported in Campbell's article.

Indeed, he almost did retire. His 2000 book called Shattered involved a glassblowing protagonist. But it also screamed of Francis's own demeanor following Mary's death.


Nothing flowed from the author's pen again until 2006, when Under Orders told his world-wide audience that Francis's writing spirit had been refueled and was alive and well.


Mary had been Francis's chief researcher throughout his writing career, although there were subjects and topics they explored together.

Mary gamely took on such tasks as flying airplanes (for Flying Finish, 1966 and Rat Race, 1971); photography (for Reflex, 1981); oil painting (for In the Frame, 1976); computer programming (for Twice Shy, 1982); and gold mining techniques (for Smokescreen, 1972).

As a team, Mary and Dick Francis developed an air-taxi firm called Merlix (named for sons Merrick and Felix), and went airborne in a hot air balloon to research Whip Hand (1979), and traveled to Moscow in 1980, prior to the Olympic Games.

Trial Run, published in 1978, had its roots in the Moscow trip, as the novel's setting was pre-Olympic Games. (As it turned out, the Olympics were boycotted by the United States in 1980 because Russia invaded Afghanistan.)

However, Trial Run was unaffected. The research that comes forth in each different Francis protagonist's employment, or side interest, is part of what has made each of the mystery-thriller novels an exciting trip.


The Francises left Britain in 1980 to explore greener writing pastures in America. Florida was the couple's haven for 12 years. Then came the Grand Cayman Island and a residence on Seven Mile Beach, not a bad reward for years of toil on the race track and with the pen.

The author's rewards have shown up along the way in mesmerized racing and novel-reading fans all over the world, in material luxuries, and in high-flying writing accolades.

Whip Hand earned both British and American top awards. The UK picked it as the year's "Gold Dagger" recipient (best crime novel), while the USA gave it the Edgar Allan Poe award (best mystery of the year).

In Britain, a television series was created from Francis's first Sid Halley novel, Odds Against (1965). It was comprised of six episodes with the title The Racing Game. America's PBS also broadcast the series. Dead Cert, Francis's first novel, was made into a movie, but with little fanfare.

Halley became Francis's only repeat protagonist. Halley received new adventures in Whip Hand and Come To Grief (1996), which also won an Edgar.

Francis earned a British "Silver Dagger" (runner-up, best crime novel) with For Kicks in 1965, and his first Edgar in 1970 for Forfeit.

Under Orders was the last novel copyrighted alone by Dick Francis. From 2007, since son Felix became a co-author, the thrillers have been copyrighted by the Dick Francis Corporation.

Mary and Dick Francis's other son, Merrick, followed his father into the horse racing business, as a trainer in Britain. He handles flat racers as well as steeplechase prospects.


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