Today we welcome crime author Felix Francis – son of Dick Francis – to the site to talk about his father’s writing, which he has continued, and made his own…
My father was often asked which of his books was his favourite. He used to say that was like someone asking him which was his favourite child. Even if he secretly had one, it was not to be admitted to. He used to always reply that it was his latest novel that was his favourite, but that was probably because he could still remember the plot and the characters. Not that he had a bad memory, far from it, just that, after 38 novels and numerous short stories, the details tended to merge together.
Now, five years after my father’s death and 15 years after the publication of his last book where I was not involved with the writing, I can look back at his cannon of work and make my own choice.
But it is not an easy task. I grew up with his novels as if they were my siblings, each of them brought into the world by my parents after a nine-month gestation period, and no-less of a painful birth than my own. Do I choose one of those with which I was involved? Rat Race where I designed the bomb that blew up the light aircraft, or Twice Shy about a physics teacher (I was one at the time) and for which I wrote the computer program? Or how about Second Wind in which I helped with the meteorology, or Straight where I sourced all the gadgets, or Shattered where I helped to get the book finished? The answer is none of those. My favourite has always been Bonecrack, my father’s tenth novel – perhaps appropriate as I have now written 10 myself.
I loved Bonecrack right from the start even before its official publication in October 1971. It is a story about two fathers and two sons and, in particular, how the development of a working relationship between the sons changes the bonds that exist between each father and his son. It is a tale of how the sons seek to establish their own existence, emerging from the shadows of their domineering fathers, and the distinction between total dependence and true independence as a means to that end.
But, of course, it’s a thriller too – a story of threats and coercion, of mystery, violence and intrigue. It is not a whodunnit in the traditional sense as the reader knows who the villain is on page six. It is more a tale of a battle of wills between two strong personalities both of whom are determined to prevail.
The book opens with Neil Griffon, the 34-year-old protagonist and first-person narrator of the story, being violently abducted by a pair of masked thugs. Neil has temporarily taken over the racehorse training stable of his authoritarian father, Neville Griffon, who is laid-up in hospital with a broken leg. The thugs have snatched the wrong Griffon and it’s nearly curtains for Neil before it even gets started.
The thugs work for Enso Rivera, a Swiss master-criminal, well used to getting his own way by disposing permanently of those who get in his way. Enso Rivera has a son, Alessandro, who wants to be a jockey. More than that, he wants to ride Archangel, the favourite, in the Derby. Archangel is trained by Neville Griffon. Rivera makes it perfectly clear to Neil that, unless his son rides the horse in the big race, he will destroy the training stable, backing up his threat by breaking a leg of one of the other prize thoroughbreds.
The 18-year-old boy, Alessandro, duly turns up at the yard and Neil allows him to ride some of the lesser horses, without letting him near the prized Archangel. Alessandro demands to ride the star but Neil explains that he will only make a fool of himself if he were to ride the skittish colt without any experience. This does not please Alessandro’s father who insists that his son must ride Archangel on the training gallops. Neil detests the situation but has little or no choice but to acquiesce to Rivera’s unreasonable demands, with predicable results. Fortunately, Alessandro is not seriously hurt in the resulting fall – but a lesson is learned.
Reluctantly, as time goes on, Neil has to admit that Alessandro has some real talent as a jockey and he starts to mentor him in his riding. Hitherto, Enso Rivera has spoiled his son completely, such that Alessandro readily accepts the violent removal of anyone who stands in his way. Consequently, the boy has become accustomed to being wholly dependent on his father, not on himself. But Neil consciously changes this attitude. Using the same patience and tact that Neil brings to his dealings with his own father, he shows the young man how to believe in his own abilities and to trust his own judgment.
However, this change in circumstance does not go unnoticed by Rivera Senior who resents the fact that it is no longer he, Enso, who is providing everything for his son. It makes him more angry and he responds in the only way he knows how – with more threats and increased violence, leading to a dramatic, brutal finale.
Maybe it is because the relationship I had with my own father was nothing like those that are depicted in the story, that I find the book so compelling. I remember asking my father how he came up with the concept – was it based on someone he knew? “Not really,” he replied. “But there is some truth in all my characters. I spend my time watching people, especially at airports, and I like to piece together a blend of different individuals.” I now find myself doing exactly the same thing and, I hope, coming up with the same results.
My love of Bonecrack was instrumental in me deciding to write a similar type of story in my eighth novel, Refusal. It does not have the father/son relationships in the same way but the reader knows the identity of the antagonist almost from the start, as was the case in Bonecrack. Far from being a whodunnit, it is more a ‘how-the-hell-do-I-get-out-of-this’ mystery, albeit this time with my father’s creation, Sid Halley, as the main character.
It is my double homage to the master.
Front Runner by Felix Francis is published by Michael Joseph on the 10 September, price £18.99 in hardback.
© Felix Francis, August 2015