Dick Francis died Sunday in the Caymans, where years ago he’d taken his English bones to warm in the sun, bones that had been broken so often in his first career as a champion steeplechase jockey. Bones so often broken that they forced him to give up riding. And find a second champion career, thriller writer.
He was one of my longtime favorite novelists, and curiously, I had spoken about him only a little over a week ago, at the Murder in the Magic City convention in Birmingham, Alabama. I was part of a panel — along with Sheila Lowe, Meredith Cole and E. Michael Terrell – that was titled Murder Gets a Hook.
We talked about what ‘hooks’ a reader, and I shared my view that there were actually three hooks in good writing.
If you write a series, the first hook is the mix of ingredients that form your foundation — the protagonist’s occupation, the locale, mood, period, and the continuing cast of supporting characters. Second, the plot idea for each individual book. Third, the opening grab — what pulls readers into a book and makes them want to take it home.
Mr. Francis didn’t write a series, although some would argue that his heroes were often a variation on the same theme. Sid Halley appears in three novels, but Mr. Francis wrote dozens.
He excelled at the last two hooks.
He wrote intriguing plots that captivated readers who had never even seen a horse up close, let alone gone to a race, readers who weren’t British and knew nothing about bookmakers, trainers, changing rooms or club badges.
And he knew how to drop the reader immediately into a story.
His very first novel, Dead Cert, opens in the middle of a race, and no one made a race more exciting. Those descriptions would define his work.
It was the beginning of his second novel, NERVE, that I brought with me to Birmingham to share with the panel audience. In it, he demonstrates one of his other remarkable talents: creating gripping first lines.
Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races. I was standing only six feet away from him, but he did it so quickly that had it been only six inches I would not have had time to stop him.
How can you not keep reading?
It was jockey training perhaps. The keen, ingrained understanding of the importance of getting out of the gate. That above all else had to be perfect if you hoped to win.
Dick Francis knew how to get out of the gate.
And we were privileged to be able to ride with him.