25 January 2009


I've been a fan of Dick Francis novels for ages. I rarely read fiction anymore--my love of fiction ended with the glorious works of the 19th Century--but I do have a weakness for horse-related fluff. And over the years, I relished the growth of style in the Dick Francis novels. At his mature best, Francis could even handle sex scenes deftly, and his formula works were delightful treats. As one of my equally horsie lit/crit friends once said, his novels were even more wonderful because, a year on, one could read them again with almost equal delight.

And yet I picked up Silks, co-written with son Felix, with some trepidation because Dick Francis was born in 1920. I worried about how much of him would be in this novel. I fear it's not much.

I'm still reading with enjoyment, but my lit/crit training has kicked in uncomfortably. I'm feeling the need for editorial comment. I want to edit clumsy heaping of fact where it's not needed and rewrite some nagging telling where a few whip strokes of showing would urge the plot forward.

What has really bothered me though is the perfunctory use of horses in this novel. I'm so used to the depth of Dick Francis's knowledge and love of horses that I read his work expecting to hear hoofbeats, smell the sweat, and feel the abiding love of the horse.

This evening, however, I reached the scene where the narrator and his horse take a bad fall in an amateur race. The narrator describes the fall well, and, since it was obvious the narrator survived, I flipped the page worrying about the horse.

The plot moved forward several months without mention of the fate of the horse.

I was stunned. Then I felt actual anger at the narrator, a fictional character. This is NOT the sort of person--fictional or otherwise--I want to know. The narrator OWNED this horse. Had this been one of many mounts of a professional jockey, the lack of concern would have been understandable. But an amateur jockey who fails to detail the fate of a horse he owns--ugh.

A few pages later, the detached narrator at least ASKS after the horse while in hospital, but only in passing. I wanted details. I kept turning pages, thinking, great, at least the horse survived, but, because of this lack, I didn't give a flip about the narrator's back injury or the central mystery. I wanted the concise vet report Dick Francis would have woven in without stalling the story an iota.


So this is different from the Dick Francis novels I've enjoyed for so many years. It's quite likely that son Felix will carry on the family business and carry it on admirably. If he's as diligent as his father, his style will smooth out and his pace quicken. Over the years, I enjoyed Dick Francis's growth as a writer. Early on, he sometimes started slowly and showed a few clumsy strides, but even his awkward moments showed class and a promise of closing speed. And at his best, he came through in grand style.

Perhaps his son Felix will improve his style. That's doable. This is a decent journeyman effort. While this Francis novel is often stilted and in need of another rewrite or two, it is enjoyable formula fiction. I just wish Felix had his father's passionate love of horses. That's what is lacking in Silks.