Don’t do it!

Wendy Doniger

  • Field of 13 by Dick Francis
    Joseph, 273 pp, £16.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 7181 4351 5

Any Dick Francis novel about horses and crime satisfies my definition of a myth: like a myth, it is one of a corpus of interrelated stories (most, though not all, about horses, and many about an ex-jockey named Sid Halley) held sacred by a group (Dick Francis fans, or Franciscans of a sort, Francisfans, who recognise one another, like ((Star)) Trekkies, across several continents, without benefit of secret handshake or decoder ring) over a period of time punctuated by ritual events: once a year since 1962, when, after a long career as a champion National Hunt jockey, he published his first novel, Dead Cert, we have celebrated the new Francis novel.

A Francis novel is a story composed of recycled fragments, what Claude Lévi-Strauss called mythemes (we call them clichés when they occur in bad films and novels), which the author constantly shuffles and reassembles through a process of bricolage. Francis novels are ritualistic even in the masks they wear: the covers of the last dozen or so have an immediately recognisable pattern that can make a Francisfan salivate across a crowded room in Barnes & Noble, two shimmering, boldly contrasting colours, one for background and the other for the title and a stylised silhouette.

Dick Francis’s plots, too, have a recognisable pattern but it doesn’t hinge on the stereotyped personality of the hero in the manner of other series of mystery novels – Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Travis McGee et al. The Francis pattern is more like an obsession: the hero suffers great physical pain and humiliation at the hands of a villain who is often so well liked, powerful and respected that no one but the hero can believe in his villainy; and how happy we are when the hero destroys the villain and is vindicated.

The novels vary in quality (after all, there are 37 of them), but what makes every one of them compelling is not merely the vivid, clean writing but the powerfully coded religious vision. The world of Dick Francis is the site of a Manichaean battle between, on the one hand, the worst sorts of human being (sadistic paranoid killers, low-life swindlers, cruel upper-class snobs and twits) and, on the other hand, one or two good people, including of course our hero. In some of the novels the heroes are a bit too squeaky clean for the reader to identify with: Would I have given back the money? Died for my friend? But in others he undergoes a quasi-religious transformation: loses status or masquerades as someone low and weak in order to duck under the villain’s radar, like Odysseus as the beggar at the end of the Odyssey. This is a religious scenario, the Shazam syndrome: little crippled Billy Baxter says the magic word, SHAZAM, and turns into Captain Marvel.

The qualities of innocence, generosity and endurance that the hero has, or acquires, are embodied in the presiding deity of this cult – the horse. The horse is the God who witnesses the crime and often suffers it for our sake, like Jesus or the blinded horses in Peter Schaffer’s Equus; and the horse’s courage and nobility become incarnate in the hero who battles against the forces of evil. Francis’s masterpiece is the 1995 novel Come to Grief, which plunged terrifyingly into the psyche of a man who went about mutilating horses, including the beloved pony of a crippled child. The other red thread that runs through his novels is aviation: Francis joined the RAF in 1940, trained on Spitfires, and became a bomber pilot. Many of his heroes fly; some of them fly horses (that is, transport horses in planes), a modern distillation of the winged horses found in many mythologies.

The Francis myth, like any myth, is driven by a doomed desire to provide an answer to an insoluble paradox close to the bone of human existence: in this case the riddle of pain and endurance. The theology is one of pain. It strikes me as significant that C.S. Lewis published The Problem of Pain in 1957, the year in which Francis published his first book, The Sport of Queens, a rather premature autobiography, telling the story of his first life as a champion steeplechase jockey. Francis did most of his riding on and about the Berkshire downs, around Lambourn and Newbury, just a short distance from Oxford, where C.S. Lewis lived and taught; I like to imagine them strolling on the Ridge Way, perhaps gazing down on the White Horse carved into the clay of the hill, comparing the paths they took, from such different worlds, to their discovery of the role of physical pain in the construction of the human spirit.

Francis learned about pain and courage from horses. His hero, Sid Halley, has a hand that was mutilated in a fall during a race, when the horses trampled it with their razor-sharp racing shoes; and his various ways of overcoming this horribly literal handicap play a significant role in several of the novels. Francis, too, injured a hand in a fall, and like Halley and most jockeys, more or less lost count of his broken collarbones and other fractures. But to this innocent, real, passive experience of pain (horse pain, God pain) he adds the imagination of another sort of pain: evil, aggressive pain (human pain, Satan pain), as intense as sex-torture, cunningly devised by the villains of the piece. The first kind of pain is what teaches you to endure the second.

This physical armature is fleshed out by a prolonged meditation on psychological pain and suffering that makes most Francis novels a cross between Sacher-Masoch, Raymond Chandler, C. S. Lewis and Horse and Hound. Francis knows all about psychological pain, too: at the age of 36, when he was riding for the Queen Mother in the Grand National, his horse, Devon Loch, with a comfortable lead, collapsed mysteriously just 40 yards from the winning post. That event, with its attendant frustration, disappointment and unsolved mystery, was the stuff of fiction; it marked the end of his professional riding career and his rebirth as a writer. He emerged from the Grand National disasters as from a chrysalis, wrote The Sport of Queens, and never looked back.

He has now published his first book of short stories, eight of which were commissioned by publishers who dictated the length while five have not previously been published: Field of 13. The old stories were written between 1970 and 1979, when he had already been writing novels for almost a decade; the new ones were presumably composed more recently. There’s not much difference between the two sets, but as a group they are dramatically different from the novels. In place of physical torment, Francis here produces subtler, gentler, merely mental torment. He explicitly warns the reader of this change of tone – his Prologue begins: ‘Tell me a story ... no bloody corpses, no horrors, no hung, drawn and quartered heroes’ (the latter being fairly thick on the ground in the novels). And later, in the preface to a story in which a man who has been treated rudely in a restaurant forces the owner to behave better (honest to God, that is the plot): ‘No murder here, no blood.’ And no tension, no adrenaline, no thrill.

Instead, he offers wisdom. His understanding of human psychology is profound, and he writes about it with a shrewd, sharply observed, Chekhov-like compassion for lost souls: the rich woman who falls in love with her jockey and is humiliated when he cheats her, the honest stable-woman who is disowned by her social-climbing daughter, the alcoholic journalist who struggles to summon the courage to write about the crime he has accidentally discovered. There are flashes of the old love of technological detail, and horses you can smell right on the page, and hateful but all too believable villains. The larcenous invention that graced the novels is here, too: I wonder if anyone, outside of the police record, has described so many ways to run a scam, to steal a mare in foal, to substitute one horse for another, to fix a race, to sneak a horse out of the stables at an auction sale, to dope a horse, to hide stolen money, to cheat a buyer. Francis actually cautions the reader before one devilishly clever and seemingly undetectable crime, ‘Don’t do it!’

But the stories aren’t nearly as compelling as the novels, and no wonder. Francis brilliantly controls the pace of each of his novels, gathering speed slowly, to a photo-finish: asking him to write a short story is like asking Michelangelo to paint a miniature. In Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson complained that the movies had gotten too small; the short-story word-count hems Francis in at the rails. (The abbreviated versions of the novels available on tape also lose much of their power.) The power in the novels is generated not only by the physicality of the hero’s experience but by the heft built up by minute, painstaking detail about some activity – betting, racing, flying, banking, industrial spying, railroads – which makes us appreciate the villain’s world and the challenge it poses for the hero. The novels generate a tension that most readers could not bear were it not for the comfort of the genre, the promise of a ritual ending: Francis won’t let you down, good will triumph. (How did we ever get through the first novels, before we knew we could trust the pattern?)

In place of this tension, Francis plays tricks in the stories that we would never stand for in the novels: good does not always triumph; the villain sometimes escapes or comes a cropper as a result of some chance event, so that the hero does not have the satisfaction of bringing him down. This more flexible worldview makes possible what the novels lack, surprise endings of a highly cynical kind: some of the villains turn out to be, Kafka-like, people we trusted to get the villains for us, guards or judges or policemen. This is refreshing, and modern, but it is not as satisfying as Francis’s old-style mythical vision. The gods are still here: no one since Anna Sewell has deified horses so movingly, and used them as such vivid markers of the thin line that separates saints from sinners. But like their author, Francis’s horse gods are long-distance runners, not sprinters; the short-story format leaves them standing at the starting gate and leaves us looking forward, in the ritual cycle, to next year’s Dick Francis novel.