Showing posts with label Dick Francis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dick Francis. Show all posts

09 February 2016

No, Please Don't Go ... When Series End

by Barb Goffman

While I love a good stand-alone novel, like many people, I adore a good series. I love finding characters who come to feel like family, a town that feels like home. I love the comfort of returning year after year to a new book in the series (though sometimes the books come more or less frequently--Julia Spencer Fleming, write faster!).

Alas, with every good series, readers are forced to face The End. Sometimes authors die. Sometimes series end because the author has decided she's written those characters' final tale. Sometimes an author is willing to write more books in the series, but her publisher has pulled the plug.

I am not good with facing The End. And that is why, if you look at  my bookcases filled with yet-to-be-read novels, you will find the final book or final series book by several authors. I love each series, and I long to read these books, but I can't bear to read them knowing that would be it. The End. There would be no more. I would rather have the books sit unread, a promise of delight waiting for me, even though I may not ever crack open the spines. It's like knowing old friends are still out there.
Just some of my unread books


But now, thanks to the rise of self-publishing, my dilemma may partly be solved. Once upon a time, if a publisher dropped an author or series, that was it. It was rare another publisher would pick up the series. But now, those authors can write new books, hire an independent editor, a graphic artist, a proofreader, and get those new books out to their adoring fans. Like Sleeping Beauty once kissed, those series rise from dormancy, alive once more!

You might think the same possibility wouldn't exist for authors who have actually died, but you'd be wrong. Today several series originally written by authors who have passed on are continuing, written by a family member or authors chosen by the deceased's family to continue the legacy. John Clement is continuing the pet-sitter series that his mother, Blaize, began. Felix Francis is continuing the horse-racing series that his father, Dick, created. Reed Farrel Coleman is continuing the Jesse Stone series begun by the late Robert Parker. And there are lots more examples. Do the new books capture the same feeling, the same essence, as the ones written by the original author? Is reading these new books still like going home? Each reader has to decide for himself. But it's a chance for each series to continue, and that's wonderful.

So maybe one day I will crack the spine of Blood Knot, the third novel in S.W. Hubbard's Adirondack-based mystery series. The author has self-published a fourth book comprised of three short stories in the series. Is there another novel on the horizon, too? I hope so.

And maybe one day I'll read the final few books by author Barbara Parker. But maybe not. The author died in 2009, and it doesn't appear her family will have her series continued. So I will let those books sit on my shelf, particularly Suspicion of Rage, the final book in Parker's Suspicion series featuring attorney Gail Connor. I like knowing the character still has a chance to live on in another tale I haven't read, that a promise of delight still awaits me.

Do you have favorite series that have ended? I'd love to hear about them. If the authors are living, maybe we can persuade them to bring those characters back to life.

08 August 2015

Saving the Cat


by B.K. Stevens

In the delightful Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life (1991), the souls of the dead go to Judgment City, where they must prove they deserve to break free from the reincarnation cycle and move to a higher level of existence. During trials, prosecutors and defenders support their arguments by showing film clips from the dead person's life. (Yes, your most paranoid fantasies are true: Everything you've ever done has been filmed and filed, and can eventually be used against you.) The onward progress of Meryl Streep's character is assured by a clip from the night her house caught fire. We see her rushing out of the burning building, leading her two children to safety. Then we see her rushing back in, flames all around her, to emerge moments later with the family cat safe in her arms.

I don't know if Blake Snyder had this scene in mind when he wrote his 2005 guide to screenwriting, Save the Cat! It seems possible. Snyder defines a Save the Cat scene as "the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something--like saving a cat--that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him."
True, he admits, not all protagonists are sterling sorts likely to save cats or help old ladies across the street. He cites Pulp Fiction as an example of a movie with protagonists who are, to put it mildly, not very nice. (But even then, he argues, the writers manage to get us interested in the protagonists, to come close to sympathizing with them.)
 Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need
 
I think many insights in Snyder's book apply not only to movies but also to novels and stories. As a writer, I've found his ideas about plot structure helpful, and I've been careful to include Save the Cat scenes in the first chapters of my recently released novel (Interpretation of Murder) and my soon-to-be-released young adult novel (Fighting Chance). Much as I'd love to talk about my own books, though, I decided more authoritative examples would provide more convincing support for Snyder's ideas. So I pulled some mysteries and thrillers from my bookshelf, not quite at random, and looked for Save the Cat scenes.

I'll start with an obvious example, Tom Clancy's Patriot Games. Jack Ryan is strolling down a London street with his wife and daughter when he hears an explosion. Grenade, he realizes instantly. He hears a burst of gunfire, sees a Rolls Royce forced to a halt in the middle of the street, sees one man firing a rifle at it and another man racing toward its rear. IRA, Ryan thinks. He yanks his wife and daughter to the ground to keep them safe. Then he takes off. He tackles one attacker, grabs his gun, shoots the other attacker. Ryan gets shot, too, in the shoulder, but he hardly notices. He's done what he had to do. He's protected his family and stopped the attack. He's saved the cat. 






So now we know, after only a few pages, that Jack Ryan is observant, courageous, quick, and capable. His first thought is to keep his wife and daughter safe, but he doesn't hesitate to risk his own life to rescue the people in the Rolls. His actions match a pattern we easily recognize as heroic. If we want to keep reading about him, if we want to see him triumph, no wonder.

The second book I looked at was Dick Francis' Banker. Even before I read Save the Cat, I'd noticed how often Francis uses his first chapter to make us like and admire his protagonist. Banker begins when one of Tim Ekaterin's co-workers looks out a window at the bank and  sees an executive, Gordon Michaels, standing fully clothed in the courtyard fountain. The co-worker exclaims about it but does nothing more. Ekaterin "whisk[s] straight out of the deep-carpeted office, through the fire doors, down the flights of gritty stone staircase and across the marbled expanse of entrance hall." He rushes past a "uniformed man at the security desk," who presumably should know how to handle unsettling situations but instead stands "staring . . . with his fillings showing," past two customers who are frozen in place, "looking stunned." "I went past them at a rush into the open air," Ekaterin says, "and slowed only in the last few strides before the fountain."  He tries to reason with his boss and learns Michaels is gripped by hallucinations about "people with white faces," who are following him and are, presumably, up to no good. The chairman of the bank, a "firm and longtime" friend of Gordon Michaels, scurries into the courtyard. "My dear chap," he says to his friend, but evidently can think of nothing else to say, nothing else to do. He turns to Ekaterin."Do something, Tim," he says.







Banker
"So I stepped into the fountain," Tim Ekaterin says. He takes his boss by the arm, gently assures him he'll be safe even if he leaves the fountain, gets him to come into the bank, takes him home, helps get him into bed. Ekaterin's actions aren't heroic in a traditional sense--he's never in physical danger--but he's shown himself to be compassionate, intelligent, and determined. And he's acted. When other people are too stunned and stymied to do anything but stare, Ekaterin runs past them "at a rush" and solves the problem. He saves the cat.

Then there's Harry Kemelman's Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, the Edgar-winning first novel in the Rabbi Small series. David Small doesn't have much in common with Jack Ryan. He's slight and pale, he'd trip over his own feet if he tried to tackle a terrorist, and if he picked up an a bad guy's gun, he wouldn't know how to fire it. But he takes decisive actions when, in Chapter One, two of his congregants are locked in a silly dispute about damages to a car one borrowed from the other. The two men are longtime friends, but neither is willing to admit he could be at fault, and both are so angry and frustrated they refuse to talk to each other, or even to pray in the same room. Rabbi Small persuades them to submit their case to an informal rabbinic court at which he presides. As he explains his judgment, he applies centuries-old Talmudic principles to this contemporary situation, displaying deep knowledge of complicated texts, impressive mental agility, and penetrating insight into human nature. By the time he's finished, the two men are friends again, relieved to put their differences behind them. The dispute about the car has no relevance to the novel's central mystery, to the murder that hasn't yet been committed. But the scene has served its purpose. We like and admire Rabbi Small and want to keep reading about him. And, once again, the cat is safe.






Friday the Rabbi Slept Late
A week or so ago, I bought Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, embarrassed to realize I'd never read it. It's a mystery classic, I'm a mystery writer--high time I get down to business and read Rebecca. I started reading and felt the pull of that famous first sentence, of that haunting opening description--the trees, the smokeless chimneys, the threadlike drive, the nettles, the moonlight. Next comes the second chapter's account of a couple living in a comfortless hotel, welcoming boredom as an alternative to fear, waiting impatiently for newspapers that bring them scores from cricket matches and schoolboy sports--not because they care about such things, but because trivial news offers some relief from the "ennui" that otherwise envelopes them. Then Chapter Two merges into Chapter Three, into memories of a time when the narrator was dominated by the repellant Mrs. Van Hopper and felt incapable of fighting back. That's as far as I've gotten.

   
I'm not saying Rebecca isn't good. The quality of the writing impresses me, the situation beginning to develop in Chapter Three intrigues me, and generations of readers have loved this novel. There must be wonderful things lying ahead. But I've got to admit I missed a Save the Cat scene. As I read the opening chapters of Rebecca, I kept waiting for the narrator to do something.She didn't.
 

That, I think, is the essence of the Save the Cat scene. As Snyder says in his definition, "the hero does something"--his italics. Or, as the befuddled chairman in Banker says, "Do something, Tim"--my italics.

I think readers are drawn to protagonists who do things. I'd guess that's probably true of most readers, especially true of mystery readers. In mysteries, after all, there's always a problem to be solved, an injustice to be set right. Sitting around and feeling overwhelmed by circumstances doesn't cut it. Feeling sorry for oneself definitely doesn't cut it. If we're going to commit ourselves to spending time with a protagonist, we mystery readers want it to be someone who responds to a tough situation by taking action. We can forgive a protagonist who makes mistakes. Passivity, though--that's harder to forgive.

I fully intend to read the rest of Rebecca. But not yet. While I was browsing through my bookshelves to find examples for this post, I got hooked by a protagonist who does things, who knows how to save a cat. I'll finish reading Rebecca right after I finish re-reading Friday the Rabbi Slept Late.

29 April 2013

I Found My Thrill (but not on Blueberry Hill)

by Fran Rizer
The original title at the top of this was simply "Thriller."  When my grandson stood behind me and saw that, he asked, "G-Mama, are you writing about Michael Jackson?"  I'm not, so I changed the title though I'm not writing about Fats Domino either.  (BTW, my grandson is the ONLY person who can stand behind me while I write without igniting my wrath.)
Somehow I don't believe this photo really
needs a cut line.

As some of you know, my Callie Parrish Mystery series is so close to cozy that I don't object to being classified as a cozy writer.  I wrote the first one following what I thought were the guidelines for cozies, but Berkley Prime Crime thought not and  marketed them as Mainstream Mystery.  I've also done some writing under pen names because I didn't want to offend or upset those wonderful people who read about Callie and Jane nor disillusion any of my former students that Ms. Rizer might say something that wasn't "nice."

I'm presently trying to find a publisher for a new thriller, and when I do, it will be published under the name Fran Rizer.  I've decided I'm too old to try to protect my reputation any longer, and the students I last taught are now grown. It's not going to hurt for my readers to realize that while Callie Parrish doesn't use profanity, Fran Rizer knows how to spell those words!

Since my genres sometimes cross, I researched genres again when I finished this book to see what I'd written. Yes, there are several murders (way more than the maximum of  two  allowed in a cozy), but I wasn't quite sure what  to call this book.  After all, I researched cozies before the first Callie book, and didn't hit the target. My agent helped me.  He calls this a southern mystery thriller.  Everyone knows the meaning of southern and mystery, but what exactly IS a thriller?

I'll share my findings with you, but please don't think I'm comparing my thriller with the ones mentioned in this article.

First off, I don't believe in writing "formulas."  There is no formula for writing a thriller, but there are shared characteristics.  The biggest one is obvious:  thrillers "thrill."  The plots are scary with great risk to the characters, making the reader either eager to turn the page or scared to turn the page and see what's next.

Thrillers cross many writing genres and can be divided into different categories:  action thrillers, military thrillers, psychological thrillers (like Hitchcock's Psycho), romantic thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, spy thrillers, and even more.  The stories begin with a major, generally life or death, problem and a protagonist who attempts to solve it only to find the threat grows bigger and bigger and more and more dangerous.  The confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist is dramatic, and the book ends with a short wrap-up.

Recognize these people?
The thrillers that most interest me are the thriller murder mysteries. Some are classic "Who-done-its?" Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs is that kind of thriller.  We don't know who committed the murder(s) until the end.
.
Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle and Peter Benchley's Jaws are "How-done-its?"  The readers (or movie viewers) know who the bad guy is from the very beginning.  The tension and thrill is in the question, "Will they catch him/her/it before more people are killed?"  Note that the bad guy doesn't have to be human.  It can be an animal like in Jaws.
Dick Francis died in 2010.  He had
received numerous awards including
three Edgars, the Crime Writers'
Association Cartier Diamond Dagger,
 and the MWA Grand Master Award.




Not all murder mysteries are thrillers.  Many are puzzles that are interesting and entertaining but don't sweep the reader into a thrilling action-filled ride. Dick Francis's works don't fit that category.  He was a master of the mystery thriller.

There are mystery/thriller writers whose works surpass the genre and become serious art.  Examples are:

Raymond Chandlers Phillip Marlow novels, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice; John D. McDonald's Travis McGee novels; and Ross McDonald's Lew Archer novels.  They all make serious social commentary and have existentialist undertones. Somehow, I don't think I'll fall into that category, but I'm pleased enough with my new southern mystery thriller under my own name.

Wish me luck finding a publisher for this new venture.

Until we meet again… take care of you.

15 March 2012

The Long and the Short


by Janice Law

Recently, I was asked to write a four page mystery for a forthcoming anthology. While our Sleuthsayers colleague John Floyd constructs such tidbits for Woman’s World, this is unknown territory for me. However, there’s nothing like a contract in hand and promises of a check to focus the writer’s mind and once I had a plot idea, the story went surprisingly easily. And fast.

This was because I have learned one of the invaluable aspects of the writing game, writing to length and having a sense of how many words take up how much space. Obvious, apparently, but anyone who has worked with beginning writers knows that writing to a set length is one of the difficult things to master. Ask a class for a two page essay, and you will get one and a half skimpy paragraphs with looks of anguish from half the class, and prideful four and a half page torrents from the other half.

Of course, journalists acquire a sense of length with their mother’s milk – or by their editor’s pencil. Well before they earn their first byline the decent journalist can hit his or her word count or, in bygone days, the allotted inches, on the nose.

And how does one acquire this useful skill? By writing over and over again pieces of the same length. I learned by doing two page movie reviews for a West Hartford newspaper. After several months, I not only could hit my page count, I had a new confidence in writing in general, and composition ceased to be a matter of tears and angst.
Now, everything I write (and with twenty books published and more than I’d like in the drawer I’ve written plenty) is just a multiple of those old two page reviews. I’ve acquired a sense of length.

So the little ultra-short story was not quite two reviews length or slightly more than the old Criminal Brief blogs. I figured a half page to set up the situation, a half page for the conclusion and just under three pages for the meat of the story. QED, as we used to say in geometry class.

The matter of length, though, has another aspect. I am convinced that writers all have an optimal length (or lengths). In my case the Anna Peters mysteries consistently came in around 275-290 pages. My contemporary novels are a tad longer, between 300 and 350 pages. My short stories without the incentive of a contract run between 10 and 14 pages, rarely longer – or shorter.

Other writers, I believe, follow the same sort of pattern. Stephen King clearly writes long. The Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago wrote short – check Cain, his posthumously published novel about the first murderer.
The great Edwardian humorists, P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome liked short. The classic American novelists were divided. Melville liked long as did Stowe; Hawthorne liked short and was better even shorter. The great UK Victorians and the great Russian novelists needed amplitude, though one of the best of the era, Emily Bronte, brought in Wuthering Heights at a modest length.

Perhaps if penicillin had been available to knock out her TB, Bronte might have evolved into a long writer. More recently, this been the pattern of successful mystery novelists. While Christie, Chandler, and Simenon all stayed with compact books, all too many of our contemporaries have moved from short and tight to brogdingnagian. Dick Francis, he of the thrilling Nerve and Flying Finish, grew rich on doorstop novels of multiple plots – and abundant padding.

P.D. James has grown longer, too, over the decades, if with fewer ill effects, but Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie suggests that she may have reached the tipping point. Ruth Rendall has resisted the trend; indeed her most recent novel was shorter than usual, but she has had the outlet of the Barbara Vine novels, suggesting she has two ideal lengths.

Surprisingly, given the cost-cutting in the publishing world with lower advances – or no advances at all – cheaper paper, and cheesy construction, there seems to be a preference for the massive. Big novels, big books suggest big ideas or, at least, big sales and big sticker prices. Big suggests important, though many a savvy reader knows it really means inflated. But in this economy, who can blame writers, if like me with a contract in hand, they are tempted to venture beyond their muse’s favorite territory?

1

30 December 2011

Gamble Pays Off

by Dixon Hill

Auld Lang Syne

As New Year's Eve rapidly closes upon us, I am reminded of this Scots phrase from Robert Burns. Auld Lang Syne: literally translating into English as “old long since” — or, more colloquially, perhaps: “Long, long ago . . .” A time to look back, to take stock, perhaps to dissect or deconstruct our past actions or thoughts . . .

Dissection can be messy.

I’m no book reviewer. I’ve never been paid to write a book review, nor have I ever written one before. This is not to knock book reviewers. Many do a wonderful job. I read book reviews just like anyone else – hoping to find clues to my next good read.

It’s a job I view with great trepidation however. Because:
(A) I worry about hurting people’s feelings.
(B) To me, reviewing books is just too much like dissecting them.

Whether the type of dissection under discussion is physical, mental or literary, my fear is that after you perform a dissection, you still end up with the guts of a once-living thing cut out, catalogued and stored separately (at least temporarily). Or — if I were handling the job — probably strewn all across creation.

I suspect Lucy Ricardo would make a better M.E. than I would; by the time I completed an autopsy, there’d probably be entrails hanging from the overhead lights. Not intentionally, of course; it’s just the way I do things—you should see what our kitchen looks like after I cook a meal. (Comparing autopsies to cooking . . . can’t tell I recently watched Sweeney Todd on DVD again, can you?)

As for literary dissection . . .

Dismembering story elements for study

Well, it still seems pretty messy to me. And, just as chilling. Even deconstructing a sentence seems to rob it of the life and character it once had. Clauses, sub clauses, words – each forever ripped from the bosom of its family, stored separately, catalogued, labeled.

And, quite dead.

Concerning Self-dissection — well that’s even more tricky.

I suppose dissecting your own writing is easier than dissecting your own body, but only just easier in my opinion. I sometimes have a terrible time trying to tell what’s wrong with a story I’ve written, even when I can clearly feel the “wrongness” within some certain part of it. And that problem increases exponentially when I get involved in novel editing. If you’ve been a faithful reader, then you know that I often turn to a critique group, for help, at times like these.

But one of the stranger tricks I’ve also learned (one which has helped me quite a bit) is to read works by now-best-selling authors, written back when they were in their early years — still “learning the ropes” as it were. The ease of recognizing errors committed in their earlier days is probably comparable to the relative ease of performing an autopsy on someone else, versus pulling one on my own cadaver. (I mean you have that whole “Dead people usually find it difficult to make voluntary movements,” thing to overcome.)

Comparing what went wrong in these early writings, against the way these authors surmounted their “writing problems” in later work, gives me the chance to recognize problem-patterns, then look for them in my own writing. Sort of like a med student learning to diagnose damaged organs contained within live bodies, by examining fatally flawed organs in cadavers. Such study provides the opportunity to seek out and diagnose flawed areas in my own work. It’s not quite as hands-on as an autopsy might be, or as I personally might prefer. But, I’ve learned to try and Go With the Flow! when it comes to the touchy-feely side of writing.

Oddly, perhaps, this is also one of the reasons Felix Francis’s writing appealed to me over the past few years. The son of mystery great Dick Francis, Felix has been finding his way from teaching physics to (and through) the writing thicket.

Not an easy trek.

His writing is much like his father’s in many ways. It’s as if there are similar family features on the faces of both their prose. But, especially in the beginning, there was a certain, unfortunate “flatness” to Felix’s writing — particularly compared to his father’s.

I don’t mean Felix’s stories suffered from flat characters; most were well-rounded and well-drawn. Nor do I mean that he's a bad writer; he's not. He's a good writer. It's just that, where Dick Francis' stories stood up and danced, Felix's seemed to fall flat on my tongue. His writing was flat in the same way that soda left in an open bottle becomes flat. Reading Felix’s work, I felt as if I were reading his father’s work, but it had lost its fizz — and a lot of the flavor along with it.

Now this is a problem I can recognize and sympathize with. I sometimes struggle with “flat writing” in my own work — and I find it one of the most perplexing problems to correct. So I was overjoyed to encounter Felix’s flat writing, because I knew it was so similar to his father’s, that I just might be able to diagnose the cause by comparing the two. In turn, this might open a door to healing my own writing ailments. “Let’s see if we can’t just find out,” I thought to myself, “what the reason for this loss of fizz is.”

Thankfully, I’ve got a pretty full library of Dick Francis paperbacks lying around my office (Yes: “lying around” – all part of that “entrails hanging from the light fixtures” thing!), so I got cracking. And those differences, I discovered, were primarily very small. Tiny even.

Perhaps the truest insight I gained was that the root of the problem (and the reason it’s such a tough nut to crack) lies in the tiny size of the transgressions, multiplied by the number of times they occur.

In retrospect, I decided the nature of the difficulty shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, while lack of carbonation (because it’s all escaped into the atmosphere) lies at the root of flat soda’s problem, it manifests itself through the absence of millions of tiny bursting bubbles. One overall problem -- but, lots of missing bubbles causing it.

One tiny bubble failing to rise to the surface of the soda, and burst there, would hardly be noticeable; a million missing bubbles and the soda is flat, lifeless. It’s no longer effervescent.

In other words: I discovered that (to me, at any rate) flat writing doesn’t seem to be a single problem; it’s a number of tiny problems that snowball, finally combining to rob the piece of flavor.

For example:

One difference I discovered was that Felix Francis’ characters often made outright philosophical statements. Either the reader agreed with those statements, or that reader didn’t agree with the character. I suspect that a little of this goes a long way toward erecting a barrier that keeps a reader, who didn't agree with the expressed opinions, from fully identifying with (and thus caring about) a protagonist, if that protagonist is the character making those statements. And that can be a big problem.

Dick Francis’ characters, on the other hand, seldom made philosophical statements as absolutes. Particularly when working in first person, his POV characters tended to couch such statements in gentle, very subtle ways, nearly always incorporating words such as nearly, almost, sometimes, or some to soften the blow.

It seems to me that using these "wiggle-room" words permits a reader to disagree with the sentiment expressed, but still agree and connect with the character, because the character’s own description has left room for that disagreement. It’s a subtle difference, but over the length of a novel I believe it can have a great impact.

One way to view this recurring difficulty is to think of these little problems as grains of sand at the beach. A beach is composed of millions of tiny grains of sand; if a few grains are misshapen — rough, or sharp edged — it makes little difference to your feet. The beach texture is still inviting. But, keep substituting misshapen grains in place of smooth ones, and eventually the sand texture becomes a little too rough on the toes. The beach becomes uncomfortable to walk on, barefoot. A person finds it hard to settle-in and relax on that beach. Next time they want to spend some time by the ocean, they’ll probably go somewhere else. Though they might have a hard time explaining why.

If I were the kick-ass analyst I wish I were, I would have been able to isolate some sort of Seldon’s Laws (to borrow a term from Asimov's Foundation series) concerning what constitutes the equivalent of “carbonation” in writing. In the real world, however, I’m just not that bright. Consequently, to me, it seems pretty difficult to fix a beach (or manuscript), once it’s filled with a bunch of misshapen sand grains. Because, you can’t just correct one problem to fix the overall flaw. Instead, you’ve got to first find then polish a lot of misshapen little pebbles. Not a quick and easy task — whether we’re talking about beaches, or manuscripts.

For a beach, you might be better off just scraping it clean, then bringing in all new sand. For a manuscript? Well, it might be a good idea to take a tip from the great Asimov and “run it through the typewriter again” completely rewriting that section.

For Felix Francis, however, there seems to have been another solution.

Gamble, Felix’s first book to be published since the death of his father, came out over the summer. Circumstances conspired to keep me from getting my hands on it until last week, however. And, I have to tell you: in my opinion his writing has improved by leaps and bounds. And, it is no longer flat.

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about it over the past week. (The kids have been home 24/7 with Winter Break, so it’s not like I was going to get much writing done.)

I’ve never met Felix Francis, haven’t even seen him at a book signing. So I did some online searching and this, coupled with my knowledge that his father died in 2010, has got me contemplating a possible reason for the change.

You see, part of what I think I noticed is that his prose has lost a few of those “family trait” characteristics. Don’t get me wrong; you can still clearly see the resemblance between the writing of father and son.

But, sometimes as a person grows, s/he loses some of the striking similarity in features that were so clearly prevalent in earlier years. It’s just part of the physical metamorphosis of growing up. Other times, a man’s son may do something that would be so uncharacteristic for his father (not necessarily a bad or evil thing—just different from what the father would do) that people are forced to realize the son isn’t just a carbon copy; he’s “his own man” so to speak.

This sort of subtle (on one level), but striking (on another) change, is what I believe I saw in Felix Francis’ writing. You could chalk it up to the idea that his writing is simply maturing, and no one could prove you wrong. But, I suspect another factor is also at play.

This is the first novel he’s written, in which his father has played no role. According to an interview in the British racing magazine Eclipse, Felix said that during the previous novels: “I would write the prose and he (Dick Francis) would then make suggestions or correct me if I had some of the racing not quite right. We never argued much – he seemed to like what I did.”

I’m not saying the earlier problems were being caused by Dick Francis. I’m sure that wasn’t the case. Instead, I’m left wondering if maybe Felix was stretching into a zone, when writing Gamble, which he couldn’t comfortably operate in when his father was alive.

The pressures on a son, writing under his father’s byline — particularly with the knowledge that his father is going to look over what he’s written before it gets sent to a publisher — are sure to be much different than if the son writes under his own byline. Gamble is billed on the cover as: “Dick Francis’s Gamble by Felix Francis.” This is subtly, but powerfully different from the billing Felix received on the previous novels he (evidently) largely wrote. Those were billed as being written by: “Dick Francis with Felix Francis.”

Later in the Eclipse interview, when Felix was asked if his father had left lots of book idea notes, Felix replied: “Sadly there are no notes. It’s all down to me now. It is a bit strange that he is no longer around to read the manuscript and criticise my grammar, but I am confident that he would be happy with the result.”

I believe he’s right; Dick Francis would be happy. Because, what I’m convinced I read in Gamble was a fresh new thing called Felix Francis’ voice. I don’t think he’s got it completely locked in yet. But, I do think he’s got at least one foot in the groove and is closing on target. When he gets there — who knows? Maybe his body of work will even eclipse his father’s.

One thing I’m sure of, however: choosing to write with his new voice took guts. Felix took the risk that long-time Dick Francis fans might slip away. It was a gutsy gamble to use his own voice in the novel. For Felix Francis, however, it looks as if his Gamble will probably pay off.

In Closing:

The great Dick Francis died in 2010, but I didn’t blog back then. So, during this time of Auld Lang Syne when we often look back in remembrance, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge Dick Francis’ legacy through a series of photos borrowed from Felix Francis’ website.




Dick Francis as racing fans must have thought of him.




Dick Francis as I (for some reason) always think of him.





I love the pose here. His stance is so reminiscent of the jockeys he wrote about. And . . . gee, who are those two women he's talking to?





Dick Francis with his wife, Mary.









(L to R) Felix Francis, Dick Francis, and Felix's older brother, Merrick





(That photo at the top of today's blog, incidentally, is Dick Francis finishing a ride he may not have cared to remember too often.)

Happy New Year!


See you in two weeks,
Dix