Children! - Who'd Have Them? Asks FELIX FRANCIS

Written by Felix Francis

‘From winning post to top of the bestseller list, time after time’ Sunday Times

‘Another runaway winner saddled by Francis’ – Racing Post

       ‘As usual with a Francis, once I opened the book, I didn’t want to put it down’ – Country Life

‘Entertaining’ – Robin Oakley, The Spectator

‘The Francis flair is clear for all to see’ Daily Mail

‘Carrying on his late father’s legacy of crime novels set in the high-octane world of thoroughbred racing, Felix Francis steps out of the paternal shadow, showing a distinctive voice, a grittier tone and faster pace’ – The Lady

“You can choose your friends but you sure can’t choose your family.” So says Jem Finch to his Aunt Alexandra in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960.  

I’m sure that is not the first use of that quote but it remains one of the best known. 

And, boy, is it true.

As soon as that second child arrives, sibling rivalry begins – the first born suddenly finding that he or she has to share parental affection, not a happy circumstance as both offspring vie to become the most-loved. However, over time, and more often than not, shared experiences and memories work to dilute the rivalry and replace it with unconditional love – but not always.

There are many cases, both legendary and historical, of internecine conflict between siblings starting with Cain’s murder of Abel in the Book of Genesis, and Romulus slaying his twin brother Remus before founding Rome, while the four sons of King Henry II fought several bloody wars between themselves for power and their father’s favour. 

A more recent example is that of Ronald DeFeo who, aged 23 in November 1974, shot and killed not only his father and mother, but also his four younger siblings, two brothers and two sisters, as they all slept at the family home in Amityville, New York, an episode that inspired the novel and film The Amityville Horror. But even DeFeo had nothing on Mehmed III, a 16th century Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who, thirteen days after inheriting the throne from his father, had all nineteen of his brothers murdered in a single night to prevent any of them ever plotting in the future to overthrow him. 

In literature and film, fratricide and sororicide plot lines abound: Goneril poisons her sister Regan in King Lear; also in Shakespeare, Claudius assassinates his brother King Hamlet to seize the throne of Denmark (and to marry his widowed sister-in-law to boot); Michael Corleone has his brother Fredo shot dead in The Godfather Part II; and, in Game of Thrones, Euron Greyjoy throws his brother Balon to his death from a bridge. And there are many, many more examples. Even in the computer-game franchise, Grand Theft Auto, one of the storylines involves a Triad, Wu ‘Kenny’ Lee, who kills his own brother to acquire a family heirloom. 

But, of course, not all family feuds result in untimely death. Rock-star brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher may have come to physical blows but none, so far, have proved fatal. Equally, Olivia de Havilland and her younger sister Joan Fontaine, still the only pair of siblings to each win a best-actor Oscar, both died peacefully in their sleep of natural causes but, by then, the animosity between them had lasted for more than ninety years, and they hadn’t spoken to each other for four decades when Joan died first, aged 96. And perhaps it’s best not to mention the rift between the Miliband brothers over their battle to be the leader of the Labour party in 2010.

Even the doyen of British crime writers, Agatha Christie, was spurned into action by sibling rivalry when her older sister scoffed at Agatha’s suggestion that she could write a detective story. So she took up the challenge and The Mysterious Affair at Styles was the result with Hercule Poirot making the first of his more than eighty appearances in Christie’s novels and short stories.

So is it any wonder that family divisions and sibling rivalries appear so frequently in modern crime fiction, and the Dick Francis books are no exception.


“You’re a spoilt bad-tempered bastard,” my sister said is the first line of Flying Finish, Dick’s fifth novel in 1966, and I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murderis the first of Hot Money in 1987, when eight siblings (from the first four wives) all come under suspicion of dispatching their new step-mother by pushing her retroussé little nose into a bag of potting compost and holding it there until it was certain she would take no more geranium cuttings

Further examples in the Francis canon include Longshot in 1990, where a death in a dysfunctional family results in a breakdown of normal behaviour, and Decider in 1992 details sibling rivalry rife in the boardroom of a family business. 


In my own work, Even Money centres around the protagonist’s search for answers, and his hitherto unknown sisters, after his father, thought already long dead, turns up unexpectedly only to be murdered within the hour, and Bloodline sets family members at odds when a much-loved twin sister takes her own life by jumping from a hotel balcony after an argument with her brother. In Crisis, published in 2018, the deep rivalry between three adult sons, all desperately seeking their own individual fame and fortune in the highly competitive and unforgiving world of professional horse racing, culminates in mayhem, murder and the total destruction of their family.

And I have returned to the family-rift theme in Guilty Not Guilty, published this month in paperback, where there is long-standing hostility between a brother and sister, and by extension between the brother and his sister’s husband. When the sister is found strangled on the floor of her kitchen, police suspicion falls on her husband fuelled by his brother-in-law’s accusation. Meanwhile the husband accuses the brother of committing the crime. Who is telling the truth? Who will be charged and tried?

The last quarter of the story concerns the trial at Oxford Crown Court. I had done two weeks jury service at Oxford way back in the 1980s but my memory was somewhat rusty, so I went to watch several trials, both there and at the Old Bailey in London, as part of my research for the novel. 

Court proceedings, viewed from the public gallery, are the best free theatre in the world except, of course, you are not simply watching a play where all the participants go home to their families after the curtain falls. This is real life, and, in the case of a homicide, real death. But, my most overriding memory of this research was the slight vexation I felt at not knowing for sure what had actually happened in any of the cases.

In a criminal trial, the members of the jury listen to the evidence presented to them and, on the basis of that evidence, much of it contradictory, they then decide the facts and convict or acquit according to the rules of reasonable doubt. Not any doubt, just reasonable doubt, but their decision can never be based on certainty because there is no convenient action replay of what really took place, no demonstration of the ‘real’ facts, unlike those blurry clips at the end of every episode of Murder She Wrote when the murderer and their method is finally shown to the audience and is, of course, just as Jessica Fletcher had predicted.

I tried to engender a similar slight feeling of vexation in Guilty Not Guilty, to place the reader in the role of a juror and to ask them to make their own decision.

So who do you believe? 

Do you vote Guilty or Not Guilty?

Are you right?

Read the book to find out.

Guilty Not Guilty is published in paperback by Simon & Schuster on March 18th

Felix Francis

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