How Middleham's Ben Haslam Racing inspired latest novel by son of late jockey and author Dick Francis

Dick Francis, professional jockey and best selling author, posing in a New York hotel.  Picture: AP Photo/Jim Cooper.Dick Francis, professional jockey and best selling author, posing in a New York hotel.  Picture: AP Photo/Jim Cooper.
Dick Francis, professional jockey and best selling author, posing in a New York hotel. Picture: AP Photo/Jim Cooper.
Author Felix Francis says: “On about half a dozen occasions I made tea for Agatha Christie,” recalling his childhood in a literary family. “And people like Arthur Lowe. We’d watch Dad’s Army on a Saturday night and then Arthur Lowe would come to lunch on Sunday. And as a young child, I’d wonder why he wasn't wearing his uniform.”

Such was the company kept by Felix’s father Dick Francis: RAF pilot of the Second World War, famous British steeplechase jockey who rode the Queen Mother’s horse, Sunday Express racing correspondent and a crime fiction writer of dizzying success.

On his retirement from jockeying, Dick published his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, but went on to write forty-three novels, a volume of short stories and a biography of Lester Piggott.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

His last four novels – Dead Heat, Silks, Even Money and Crossfire – were written in collaboration with Felix, his youngest son and a former physics teacher who had helped him research his crime thrillers about the world of horse racing.

Felix Francis during a Yorkshire Post literary luncheon in 2013. Picture: Gary Longbottom.Felix Francis during a Yorkshire Post literary luncheon in 2013. Picture: Gary Longbottom.
Felix Francis during a Yorkshire Post literary luncheon in 2013. Picture: Gary Longbottom.

After his death at the age of 89 in 2010, Felix has continued with his father’s work, penning numerous books since that are still billed as ‘Dick Francis novels’.

And the latest is set in Yorkshire. Hands Down is the fifth outing for the Sid Halley character, a former British jump racing champion and private detective. After the breakdown of his marriage, Halley is faced with a new conspiracy that “cuts to the very heart of the integrity of British horse racing” and finds himself in God’s Own County.

After finishing his last book, Felix and his wife Debbie went to stay at Swinton Park Hotel in North Yorkshire and decided to visit Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales, where they popped in on racehorse trainer Ben Haslam, who is acknowledged at the beginning of Hands Down.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Ben has been very helpful,” says Felix. “I went out on the gallops with him and chatted to him. One of the training stables in the book is based around his training stables.

“By lunchtime on the first day at Middleham, I had the inkling of a story and certainly I had the setting I wanted, and setting is very important. I'd used Lambourn and Newmarket in the past but I'd never ever been to Middleham before and I found it fascinating. I mean, there are 15 trainers and 500 horses in and around the small market town. And of course the castle.”

Action also takes place at East Witton and Catterick Racecourse, while Harrogate’s Turkish Baths are mentioned in the book, as Halley travels to and from the region.

Felix’s continuation of his father’s legacy goes back to a meeting with Dick’s literary agent in 2005. His late mother, Mary, used to help Dick with the books and there hadn’t been one for a number of years.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It was all a bit of a mistake, really,” says Felix, 69, of Oxfordshire.

The agent wanted a new Dick Francis hardback to stimulate demand for the backlist of books that were about to go out of print.

“I looked at the agent and said, ‘Well, you know, you're crazy. Mum and dad worked on them together. My mother has been dead for five years. My father, God bless him, can hardly remember what he had for breakfast, let alone enough to write a book’. And the agent said: ‘No, I'm asking your permission to ask an existing crime writer to write a Dick Francis novel’. Well, I must have had a few glasses of wine by then because I said: ‘Before you ask anyone else, I'd like to have a go’.

“Instead of rolling his eyes and laughing he simply said: ‘I'll give you two months to write two chapters’. So I wrote the two chapters, and he openly admits that he expected to simply get my permission to ask who he wanted.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"But he didn't. When he read the chapters, he said: ‘Well, there's two things you’ve got to do. One, you better get on and finish it and secondly, you better go talk to your father’.”

Two years later Penguin Books re-issued, re-covered and re-printed all the backlist books and they are still in print today.

Together, the Felix and Dick Francis novels have sold more than 80 million copies worldwide, in 40 languages, according to his publicist.

Crossfire, published in September 2010, was the book that they were working on before his death in February that year.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Dick and Mary are buried side by side in the Carribean, where they had moved in hope of improving her health.

“It was absolute magic growing up with my parents,” says Felix.

“As I've said often in the past, discussions over the breakfast table used to be more about whether Sid Halley could survive the night with a .38 slug in his gut, rather than who was doing the school run. How much explosive is needed to blow up a house? How can you bring down an aeroplane?

“But those sorts of conversations, when you’re a crime writer, go on all the time.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“My wife and I on one occasion were sitting in a restaurant in Australia and we realised that everyone had gone quiet around us, and were listening.

"Because what we were discussing was how to kill somebody.”

Keeping material fresh - and not repeating what he and his father have already done in the past - does pose a challenge.

“This is the 56th book and it gets more and more difficult every year to think up a story,” he says.

But he adds: “I suppose I know what I'm doing now. I've done it enough times. So I'm quietly confident. I’m a bit like Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, hoping that something will turn up.”

Something pretty chilling, probably.

Hands Down is published by Simon & Schuster on Thursday next week.

Related topics: