Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Farewell to Dick Francis

The venerable Dick Francis, one of my very favourite authors, died this past Valentine’s Day, and I would be very remiss in not recognizing him.

In the ’70s, my mother was always going on about what a terrific author he was, but I wasn’t reading crime fiction at the time. One day in October 1981, I was walking past Britnell’s, one of Toronto’s older and better bookshops, and who should be signing there but Dick Francis. “Aha!” I thought. “The perfect Christmas present for Mom!” And so in I went.

The lineup wasn’t too long, and when I got to the front, there he was, not a small man for a jockey, but then he was a steeplechaser where they’re often larger. I found Dick to be utterly charming and he seemed genuinely pleased to sign a book for my mother. It was Twice Shy. Of course I had to give it a “test run”. (It’s not good to give someone a substandard book even if it is inscribed.) I found it to be excellent. I, too, became a dedicated Francis fan.

Over the years, I met Dick twice more. Once on the Newton Abbot racecourse in 1990 where he was also signing books. We wound up spending a delightful few hours with him, walking around the racecourse, talking about steeplechasing, marveling at how much he knew — and how much he obviously loved to talk about it.

The last time we spent time with him was in Toronto on his final book tour in 1997. As then Secretary/Treasurer of Crime Writers of Canada, I arranged an evening with the group (on a previous visit to Toronto, Dick had been made an honourary member) at Sleuth of Baker Street for his signing, repairing after to a nearby restaurant. It again struck me what an enormously gracious person and a perfect gentleman he was. By this time, it was very hard for him to write (having broken many bones over his racing career), but he signed a huge number of books, then stayed behind for nearly half an hour to sign a stack of books for fans who couldn’t make it to the signing and even though his son and wife wanted to leave. “No,” he told them firmly. “These people want signed books and I’m not going to disappoint them.”

Later at the restaurant, I got a chance to chat with him for quite some time. The topic turned to, of course, horses. I got the strong feeling that Dick remembered every single one of the hundreds of races he’d ridden. Now a frail elderly man who hadn’t been on a horse in years, I asked him, “If you could ride in one more race, would you give up a year of your life?” He did not hesitate. “Absolutely.”

I hope somewhere Dick Francis is saddling up for a steeplechase.

Sorry for my detour this week. I will be back on the Future of Publishing series next week. I just didn’t want to let another week go by without mentioning the passing of a great writer/rider. To see some photos, check out: rickblechta.com/Pages/Scrapbook.html. Scroll down near the bottom.


Vicki Delany said...

Nice memories. Which makes me think: why doesn't the CWC do anything like that any more?

Hannah Dennison said...

God. I feel all teary-eyed! I spent my teens reading Dick Francis under my bedclothes by torchlight. I am happy to know he was a wonderful man - so often our "heroes" disappoint! It was a great post.

Rick Blechta said...

Hannah, thanks for writing in. Dick Francis was indeed a gentleman. The reason my wife and I got to spend a part of an afternoon at the races with him was because I asked if I could take a photo of him with my wife as a present for my mother. Than some very pushy people buttonholed him at the signing table for a good 15 minutes. We waited quietly off to the side.

When he realized we'd been waiting all the time, he was clearly mortified. The signing was about over, so he invited us to be his guests in the members' area. That was the start of a very memorable afternoon learning far more about steeplechasing than he ever put in his books.

My mother was green with envy when we told he about it over the phone that evening. But we did get her another inscribed book.

A great man.

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