This September sees the publication of the 50th Dick/Felix Francis book, Damage, another murder mystery set against the world of British horseracing. It continues the fabulous legacy of works created by my father and mother throughout the last third of the 20th Century.
I was just eight when the first Dick Francis novel, Dead Cert, was published in 1962 so I grew up in what I have always described as the best "fiction factory" in England. Talk between my parents over the breakfast table were always more likely to be about whether a character could survive the night with a .38 slug in his guts rather than which of them would be driving my brother and me to school.
Little did I realise that 50 years later it would be me writing the Dick Francis novels and that I would be having the same sort of breakfast discussions with my own wife – could a man’s neck be broken by a fall down a flight of cottage stairs?
So how did I come to take over the franchise? I could hardly describe my education as one likely to produce a New York Times-bestselling author. The sciences had always been my forte, physics in particular, a subject I had taught for 17 years. My only brief excursion into English literature – Twelfth Night and Great Expectations – had delivered a meagre grade C at O level, hardly an auspicious starting point for a career with words.
But, in early 2005, my father’s literary agent, Andrew Hewson, asked me to lunch and told me that we had a problem. No one was reading all the wonderful stories my parents had created, not because they weren’t good enough but because, as there hadn’t been a new novel for five years, the public were forgetting about them. Andrew was asking me, as my father’s manager, if I would give my permission for him to approach another established crime writer to write a new “Dick Francis Novel” to stimulate the backlist sales. I heard myself reply that, before he asked anyone else, I would like to have a go. A bold statement, perhaps, from someone whose only previous works of fiction had been school reports!
Thankfully, Andrew didn’t roll his eyes and ask why a 52 year-old ex-physics teacher might think he could write a Dick Francis book worthy of the name, he simply gave me two months to write two chapters, and then we would see.
I went home and wrote the chapters and sent them to Andrew. I also went to speak to my father.
Initially, Dad wasn’t very keen but he read the two chapters I had written and encouraged me giving advice and discussing with me the direction and intricacies of the plot as well as the writing style. When five chapters were done, we sent them to the publishers in London and New York and they became very excited. The finished book, Under Orders, was published in September 2006 and went straight into the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic rising to No.2 in London, No.3 in New York and No.1 in Los Angeles.
What had been intended only to give my father’s backlist a boost had unexpectedly taken on a life of its own. There was talk of another – even a two-book deal. Suddenly I had become a full-time author and I’m thrilled to say that Damage is the 50th "Francis" book. I intend that there will be many more to come. I have already started the 51st, for publication in autumn 2015.
Damage by Felix Francis is out this week from Michael Joseph. You can read our review here.