This coming Monday will be the fourth class out of 10 of the Readers’ Advisory course I am teaching for the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS) at UCLA. To translate that last, I’m teaching the course for graduate students getting their masters in library information studies, to become librarians, and I’m teaching them how to match up readers and books, which sounds simple but isn’t.
We have spent the past three classes talking about the mysteries of readers: how they read, why they read, and what kind of readers they are; and then we have discussed two powerful methods to connect these readers with “their” books. The first is the readers’ advisory interview, which ascertains what books readers have enjoyed and specifically why they have enjoyed them, and attempts then to find other books that will please their reading tastes, based on “appeal factors.” The second is the art of book-talking, which is to find an array of books that might appeal to a particular audience and talk about them as a storyteller would, so persuasively that the listeners’ first question when one is done is to ask “But what happens next?” and be moved to read the book to find out.
In this fourth class, we will be proceeding into an in-depth study of individual genres of popular reading. We’ll be examining one genre each week, and this week is mystery. I have asked my students to read one or more book each week, selecting from the genre we intend to discuss so that they will have read at least one representative example before we break down that genre for discussion. I decided, this week, that I would join them by reading a mystery in preparation for class on Monday, and perhaps discuss it here, and so I have done; I have actually indulged myself in two.
I didn’t feel like making a second trek to the library this week, so I cast about within my own collection for something to read, and decided to indulge nostalgia by re-reading a couple of Dick Francis novels. Both I and my father were horse lovers and mystery readers. Dad always said he’d like to move to Montana and have a horse ranch (although if you knew my mother, you knew that would never happen), and I was a typical horse-mad pre-teen who had to deal with a particularly horrible birthday one year when my grandfather, a Central Valley farmer equipped with fondness but little sense, bought me an unbroken yearling stallion at auction as my gift and then had to return it when my parents, who lived with me in SoCal suburbia, flatly refused to let me accept him. (It took me a while to forgive them.) Dad and I greatly enjoyed all of Dick Francis’s books; in fact, over the course of many birthdays and Father’s Days and Christmases, I managed to gift Dad with the entire collection, start to finish, some as tattered old paperbacks and others as pristine first editions. He read them over and over again, as do I; and it was that fact that made me pick them up this week.
Often, someone who is gifted in one career will be significantly less so in another; but Dick Francis seems to have had an impressive career as a “jump jockey” (a steeplechase rider), his ultimate achievements becoming champion jockey in the National Hunt 1953-54 season, and then jockey to Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s stable. Then, after his retirement at age 36 (a typical age for jockeys to cease practicing this dangerous and exceedingly taxing pursuit), he became a journalist and began writing horse-racing novels, becoming an explosive success as a mystery writer of sport-related books. He wrote one book a year thereafter, from 1962 to 2010, the year he died. On many of the early books, he collaborated with his wife, Mary Margaret Brenchley, who did quite extensive research surrounding the plots (including teaching herself photography and how to fly a plane), and after Mary’s death in 2000, his son Felix collaborated with him on his last four.
I am giving all this background information because I am attempting to puzzle out exactly why these books retain their appeal through several re-reads for so many people. Although I am definitely a reader who re-reads favorites, there are few authors—Georgette Heyer, Margaret Whalen Turner, and Dick Francis—whose works hold up for me again and again, even when either vaguely or completely familiar. But these same authors must hold a similar appeal for others, since they are among those considered worthy of a re-release of their novels, with new covers, in trade paperback form.
The interesting thing I find about Francis’s books is that, while they are all solidly oriented in the world of horse racing, not all, or even most, of his protagonists are jockeys. He has done an extraordinary job of exploring with his characters not just every facet of horse racing life by casting jockeys, trainers, breeders, and owners as his protagonists, but also by bringing in other only tangentially related careers, such as an air taxi service pilot, ferrying horsey people to distant races; an artist who paints portraits of winning jockeys and horses; a Jockey Club investigator; an adventure book writer; a wine merchant; a banker; a jewel merchant; and more. But all of them preserve that tie to the sport that allows Francis to include the sure-fire fast-paced scene of the breathless progression of man and horse over daunting jumps and along the flat to victory at the tapes.
Francis could definitely be characterized as a “formula” writer; while he seldom repeated the same protagonist (he wrote four books starring Sid Halley and the two I just re-read featuring Kit Fielding, out of more than 40), all of his protagonists were similar: Men between 28 and 40, with a certain kind of smart, intrepid, ethical, persistent personality combined with a light-hearted charm; a love interest usually between 19 and 28, often becoming important to the protagonist within first or second meeting; and a situation that has to be figured out, confronted and overcome, usually featuring one or more villains intent on having their own way at everyone else’s expense. But although they are formula, Francis writes them as complete individuals, with personal quirks that make them stand-out characters, and most of his plot lines are clever, convoluted, and engaging.
The two books I read this week were Break In and Bolt, a duo starring the same protagonist, jump jockey Kit Fielding. What makes Kit so interesting is his associations: First of all, he is the end product of a long line of Fielding horse trainers, with a twin sister, Holly, who is married to the last scion of a competing family of horse trainers named Allardeck who, up until this marriage, were bitter enemies of his family. And while the youngest members—Kit, Holly, and her husband, Bobby—have mostly resolved their feud, other members of the family are still hotly opposed to any association between the two clans, who have been undercutting one another for multiple generations. The second thing that makes Kit’s life interesting is that he is chief jockey to a European princess-in-exile, Princess Casilia de Brescou, and this connection forms a considerable amount of the plot of both books.
In the first, Break In, someone is targeting Bobby and Holly’s horse training business, to the point where they may lose it if they don’t find out who and why. Malicious bits of gossip about them have been published in the local paper, and someone has taken the trouble to circle the gossip in red and hand deliver it to all the merchants to whom they owe money and to all their owners who have horses in their training lot. Kit comes to the rescue and begins to believe after a while that his sister and her husband are suffering the unfortunate fallout of a plot that is actually aimed at discrediting Bobby’s father, Maynard Allardeck. Once this theory occurs to him and he goes looking, all sorts of skeletons fall out of closets, and Maynard, who maintains the vicious attitude of “death to all Fieldings” as a loyal Allardeck should, proves to be a formidable opponent. But he is not the only villain involved…
The love interest in this book is the Princess Casilia’s husband’s niece, Danielle de Brescou, an American working in London as a programmer at a major news outlet. Kit meets her when she comes to the races with her aunt, and although there aren’t immediate sparks, there is definitely interest on both sides that may progress as the book unfolds.
In Bolt, the focus is more on Roland and Casilia de Brescou. Henri Navarre, the son of Roland’s long-time business partner in France, petitions Roland to sign papers that will allow their company to manufacture plastic guns. Roland, former royalty and an old-fashioned aristocrat, is horrified at the idea of having his family name associated with weapons manufacture, and refuses. Navarre, who is a brash, greedy bully determined to have his way, proceeds to threaten everyone in Roland’s household. Roland is elderly, frail, and disabled, so Princess Casilia reaches out to Kit for support. Roland’s obnoxious sister, Beatrix, who wishes Roland to sign so that she can live yet more comfortably from the family fortune than she already does on her quarterly allowance from Roland, comes to stay with the family and acts as a rat, giving away vital details about where and when everyone will be, and Navarre carries out his threats to the point where Kit and others in the family must unite to figure out how to outwit Navarre and get rid of the threat. The book is punctuated by Kit’s exciting rides in various races on the princess’s horses, and the saga of the continuing up-and-down relationship between Kit and Danielle, which is being influenced by the presence of the suave, mature and cultured Prince Litsi, a nephew of Casilia’s. And the menacing form of Maynard Allardeck still hovers in the background, intending to do Kit harm…
I feel like one of the charms of Francis’s books is their “old-fashioned” standard of upright ethical behavior. The profession of horse-racing itself is fraught with opportunities for cheating, from drugging horses to bribing jockeys or trainers to fixing things somehow at the bookies’. But Francis, while taking all that into account, pictures his protagonists as people with a genuine, innocent relationship to the center of the sport—the horses—and a pure love for their job that keeps them going despite bad weather, bad luck, and injury. When he describes the union of horse and rider up on the Downs while the horses are being exercised or schooled, there’s an idyllic quality to the whole scene that pulls in the reader, as does his narration of the exciting points of each race in which the protagonist rides. Further, the main characters possess a dedication to logic and justice that is satisfying in its resolution against the badly behaved villains of each book. And although some of the early love interests were misogynistic in their details, as he continued to write, the women in his books made progress and became individuals in their own right, which you can’t say for some writers of mystery series. The dialogue is clear and simple, touched with humor, and the plots are in many cases labyrinthine and clever. Being myself horse mad, I can’t say for sure that someone who had no affinity for horses would enjoy these books the way that I have. But Dick Francis certainly had the aptitude to make you care what happens to his characters, and that, I feel, is the one thing that makes these books so re-readable.