Refusal, the third ‘Dick Francis’ novel to be written solely by his younger son, Felix, is under starter’s orders and will be off to a flying start in September. Before writing its predecessors Gamble and Bloodline Felix Francis co-authored four novels with his father and co-operated in many others. Refusal stars one of his father’s leading characters, Sid Halley, investigator and ex-jockey, who at the beginning of the novel has left the crime investigation business. Then the chairman of the British Horseracing Authority pleads with him to find out who is manipulating race results. Sid is reluctant and when he receives threatening phone calls he realises he would be up against Mr Big. But when did threats ever stop Sid Halley? With this fast paced novel, Felix Francis is right on course for another winner, and I’m very grateful that he stopped to grant me this interview.
Sid Halley is known to readers from previous novels by your father, Dick Francis, Odds Against, Whip Hand, Come to Grief and Under Orders. What is it that particularly appeals to you about Sid and made you decide to star him in Refusal?
Sid Halley is the only recurring character in the Dick Francis novels and Refusal will be his fifth outing. He first appeared in 1965 but somehow seems to have aged rather slower than the rest of us over the past forty-eight years. He has a complex personality with a strong feeling of right and wrong, sometimes at odds with authority and convention. He had a tough start in life with his father being killed before Sid’s birth and his mother dying when he was just 16, but he does not see that as a disadvantage or a reason to dwell on what might have been. In his few dark moments of self pity, it is his loss of his left hand that frustrates and depresses, in particular because it stopped him race-riding, but mostly Sid is a realist, sometimes living life on the edge but always using his analytical mind to weigh up the odds.
Your father had many leading characters and clearly enjoyed exploring their different careers and areas of expertise. In the four novels that you co-authored with him and in your own three solos this is still apparent – the chef Max Moreton in Dead Heat for example – so is this an angle about the novels that also appeals to you? Might you develop any of your father’s other leading characters or would you prefer to create new ones?
Using a chef as the main character in Dead Heat came about as a result of a throw-away comment by my publisher who bemoaned the fact that there was so little shelf space in bookshops for good thrillers because of the huge number of cookbooks. Well, I thought, if you can’t beat them … It is true that my father and I have tended to use new characters each novel rather than write a series with the same one (even those Sid Halley books stand alone and do not need to be read in chronological order). Partly, as you imply, it is to explore different careers and areas of expertise which maybe helps to inform as well as entertain, but it is also because it easier to fill only one book with a certain character than it is to fill many. Other than Sid Halley, who I expect to make another return sometime in the future, I don’t think I will use any other of my father’s characters again although quite a few people have asked for Geoffrey Mason (from Silks) to reappear but mostly because they want to know what happened to him after the end of the book.
Did you and your father discuss what might happen to Sid Halley in the future – for example over his artificial arm – or did you work with him only on one novel at a time? If the latter has it been fun to take the character and run with him to see where he takes you?
No, we did not discuss the future. Discussion tended to be about only the book I was writing at the time. Under Orders, which was published in 2006 as a Dick Francis, had Sid as the protagonist and we discussed him quite a lot back then. Sadly my dad wasn’t around to discuss Sid this time and there were times when I would have loved to have asked for some help, but it wasn’t to be. I feel that my father is as much a part of my books as I consider myself a part of his. After all, I grew up with Sid, and all the others, and it has been great fun to ‘run’ with him again. I have even brought back Sid’s sidekick, Chico Barnes, who was missing from both Come to Grief and Under Orders.
There seems a seamless progression in style from the Sid Halley of earlier cases and Refusal. There is a difference but the character himself lives on and carries the plot excellently. Did this come naturally to you or did you have to work at it?
It always takes hard work, whatever the character, but Sid somehow makes things a little easier. I know him so well, not only from reading the early books again but also from working extensively on Under Orders. In fact I feel that Sid is closer in Refusal to how he was in the earlier books than he was in Under Orders because I know him better now.
Refusal is a fast moving novel throughout. Is this the ‘Sid’ inside you or did you consciously study the fictional technique used by your father?
I feel that it is definitely the Sid inside me. People often ask me why I copy my father’s style but I don’t. It is my style but I was taught well by my parents. My mother was a great believer in the rhythm of sentence and she would edit my father’s work to produce a story that jumped at the reader. Some reviewers would say rather disparagingly that Dick Francis books were just ‘easy reading’. Well, my parents went to great lengths to make them so. Easy reading doesn’t mean they were easy writing. I have inherited the same belief. Contrary to some literary thinking, I believe that reading a book should be a joyous experience, the words flowing off the page like cream rather than sticking in one’s throat like barbed-wire.
There has always been a high degree of family involvement in the writing of the Dick Francis novels, including your mother’s and your own co-operation for many years. It’s often a great help to have someone around to bounce ideas off, so do you miss this aspect while writing your solo novels – or do you still have family support?
The first thing I wrote for a Dick Francis novel was when I was a seventeen year old A level physics student when I designed the bomb that blew up an aeroplane in Rat Race, which was published in 1970. I went on to write many of the scientific bits of future novels and I have certainly been involved with many aspects of research. My mother used to call it a cottage industry without the cottage. My wife, Debbie, is a great support and help. I discuss every aspect of plot with her and she reads what I write on a daily basis, often out loud to me so I can hear if the rhythm is right. If it sounds to me like rubbish, it probably is. She is the only person I allow to read the manuscript before it is delivered to the publisher. If it passes her critical eye I’m less worried about my editor!
It must in some ways have been a daunting as well as an emotional challenge when you wrote your first solo novel. Were there any angles that you found particularly difficult?
To be honest there was no great difference in my first “solo” effort compared to those “Joint” books before. Dead Heat could easily have been called “Hospital Rooms I Have Known” as I wrote most of it while sitting next to my father while he lay in hospital beds having had major heart surgery (November), falling and breaking his pelvis (January) and having a leg amputated due to poor circulation and an injury that wouldn’t heal (May/June). Contrary to what was said at the time, Crossfire was only half written when Dad died and, sadly, he didn’t even read that half as he wasn’t very well at all for the last few months. So it actually came as something of a relief when I wrote Gamble that there were not the distractions that had been there previously, although I’m not saying I wouldn’t have loved to have my father around to read it and give me advice, especially about the racing.
You taught physics before becoming your father’s manager and collaborator, and your father drew upon that for Twice Shy. Do you ever hanker to be back in the lab or classroom or to visit your other field of expertise as a marksman?
Writing can be a very solitary experience and I do sometime miss the interactions between teacher and student, and also the scholarly discussions that take place in a common room of highly educated colleagues. However, I do not miss the marking, report writing and, in particular, the moderating of assessments. I still shoot but not as often as I once did, but I was invited in March to become president of my local rifle club, an honour I gladly accepted.
Is Sid Halley going to ride again – at least on the bookshelves?
Definitely. Sometime within the next five years.
You once said in an interview for the Telegraph that your father had the ideas for his novels and then came the family involvement. Do you now enjoy the plotting of the novels?
Yes when the ideas come, no when they don’t. Finding an original twist after 47 novels is not easy. I sometime use real events from the news and adapt them slightly to fit the characters.
Your fans are sure to want you in the crime-writing saddle for a long time yet, but do you ever dream of galloping away to different fields? I don’t think your fans would let you, but I suppose we can’t stop you dreaming.
My father once asked his publisher that, if he wrote a book that wasn’t about horse racing, would it still be published. The publisher said, “Of course, but I’d rather you didn’t.” I think I am now in the same position. Certainly I will go on writing thrillers/crime but I can’t be absolutely certain that they will always have a racing storyline attached. However, the next one certainly will.
Thanks, Felix, for giving your time for this interview – and my money’s on you for Refusal.
Refusal by Felix Francis is published by Michael Joseph on the 12th September price £18.99 hardback
Main Photo © Ali Karim
Photo Felix & Dick Francis © Mike Stotter