Tag Archives: Hercule Poirot

The Intel: Felix Francis

Felix Francis

(c) Debbie Francis

Penning thrillers has been a family business for Felix Francis. His father, of course, was Dick Francis, the former jockey who produced bestseller after bestseller set in the world of horse racing. Felix grew up listening at the breakfast table while his mother and father discussed the best way to kill a man, and has carried on Dick’s writing legacy. Front Runner is Felix’s tenth novel, and the 51st Dick Francis thriller, and it sees the return of his hero Jeff Hinkley.

We’re delighted that Felix has agreed to give us the intel on Front Runner, how he came to follow in his illustrious father’s footsteps and how technology has changed the way he approaches his horse racing thrillers…

Tell us about Front Runner…

Front runner is my tenth novel and sees the return of Jeff Hinkley, investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, who first appeared in Damage. As always, the story is set against the backdrop of horse racing but there is far more to it than that. My readers don’t need to know anything about racing in order to read and enjoy it, although they might learn a bit on the journey. It is a novel of mystery and intrigue with some unexpected surprises. Jeff is approached by the multi-time champion jockey, Dave Swinton, to discuss the delicate matter of losing races on purpose. Little does Jeff realise that the call will result in an attempt on his life, locked in a sauna with the temperature well above boiling point. Dave Swinton is then found dead, burnt beyond recognition in his car at a deserted beauty spot. The police think it’s a suicide but Jeff is not so sure. He starts to investigate the possible races that Swinton could have intentionally lost but soon discovers that others are out to prevent him from doing so, at any cost.

Your undercover investigator Jeff Hinkley was introduced in your last book, Damage – how would you describe him?

Organised, loyal, courageous. Jeff is ex-military. He was an officer in the Intelligence Corps. He served several tours of duty in Afghanistan and is not phased by situations of intense danger when he has to rely solely on his wits to extricate himself from trouble. In Front Runner, Jeff’s long-term girlfriend has left him and he is hurt and angered by her betrayal. As such, he shows a vulnerable side to his character not normally obvious in his day job.

Horse racing is still a hugely popular spectator sport, but like many sports it’s having to adapt to modern times – does that offer new opportunities for you as a writer? 

In many ways it reduces opportunities as I find it increasingly difficult to think up story lines about wrongdoing as the authorities continue to close any loophole I might find. Modern technology has made detection so much easier and more reliable. No longer can one write a “traditional” story about simply drugging a horse or switching one horse for another as drug testing and electronic chip identification methods would mean instant discovery. The routine DNA testing for parentage, dope-testing and digital scanning of horses may make racing much more honest but it doesn’t help me work out new plots!

Maybe that is why so many crime novel writers are setting their books in the past when forensic science was less restrictive to their stories. The age old Agatha Christie model of twelve people (including Hercule Poirot) staying in a remote house, where one of them gets murdered and Poirot then solves the clues, would soon unravel as a lengthy story if DNA testing had been available. It would be over before it had started. I choose to write in the ‘here and now’ so I adapt and cope with the technology, but it doesn’t make things simple.

Front runnerYou were a physics teacher and a crack marksman before you started collaborating with your father on the Francis thrillers – at what age did you realise you wanted to follow in your father’s footsteps? 

I didn’t actually decide to follow in my father’s footsteps. It was all a bit of an accident. My father’s literary agent approached me and said that, after five years of no new Dick Francis novel, people were forgetting and my father’s backlist would soon go out of print. What was needed was a new novel to stimulate interest. By this time my father was 85 and my mother, who had worked closely with my father on the novels, had died.

I told the agent that there was no chance of a new novel. He then asked if I, as my father’s manager, would give my permission for him to approach an established and well known crime writer to write a new ‘Dick Francis novel‘. I replied that, before he asked anyone else, I would like to have a go. “Write two chapters,” the agent said. “And then we’ll see.” I suspect he thought that he would then get my permission to ask the established writer. I wrote the two chapters and, as they say, the rest is history. The agent told me to get on and finish the book, and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.

You’ve said that discussions around the Francis breakfast table could be pretty gruesome – give us an example!

My parents very much wrote the books together and they would discuss details of the plot not only at the breakfast table but also everywhere else, especially in the car. My brother and I would try to join in. How much explosive was needed to blow up an aeroplane? How can you make a hot-water boiler explode? How long could Sid Halley survive with a bullet in his guts with his blood dripping through a crack in the linoleum floor? How much force was needed to cave-in a man’s skull with a glass paperweight? Lovely stuff.

Front Runner is your 10th thriller, and the 51st Dick Francis thriller – reading them, anybody would think that horse racing is awash with crime and murder. How have the horse racing authorities reacted over the years to the Francis thrillers?

My father always used to say that there was far more skullduggery in his books than there was in real life, but people often like to think there is some question mark over racing. If a gambler backs a horse that then wins, it was the horse’s doing. But, if it loses, the gambler is apt to believe that the jockey was at fault, maybe he even ‘stopped’ it winning on purpose even though that is most unlikely to be the case. Both my father’s and my books have always received a warm welcome from the racing authorities. I believe this is because, even though we do tend to concentrate on the darker side, the books overall are very positive about racing in general. My father was inaugurated into the Cheltenham Racing Hall of Fame not for being a champion jockey, but for introducing more people worldwide to British racing through his books than anyone else.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

It’s not glamorous, it’s hard work and deadlines are very unforgiving.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

My father, obviously. As a teenager, I also loved books by Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley, wonderfully exciting stories that kept you turning the pages to discover what happened. More recently, I enjoy reading Peter James, Harlan Coben and Michael Dobbs. Sadly, when I’m actually writing, I find it difficult to read others. I am too immersed in the story that I am trying to create.

Give me some advice about writing…

Make your readers care. If they don’t care about the characters, like or dislike, then they won’t read the book. How often have you started a novel and then given up? It is because you didn’t care what happened to the characters so you didn’t bother to find out.

What’s next for you?

Book number 11. It is already under way and my deadline is next February, ready for a September 2016 publication.

***

Front Runner by Felix Francis is published by Michael Joseph, priced at £18.99 in hardback.

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TV & Radio Crime Log: Corrupted, Poirot, Boardwalk

We like period drama – people in hats and stiff collars committing and solving crime – and there’s plenty of it about this week. Just for a change, we’re going to start with some radio, because that’s the way we roll around here.

b03dyg3wGF Newman is an incredibly prolific writer, who has written for TV – the serial Law And Order, Judge John Deed and New Street Law, among them – as well as novels, and radio and theatre plays and serials.

His latest drama series, The Corrupted, for BBC Radio 4 is based on the characters from his epic crime novel, Crime And Punishment, about the  rise of a London crime family in post-war Britain.

In the first episode, the year is 1951 and, as London celebrates The Festival of Britain, a young boy witnesses a murder that will scar him for life and have lasting consequences that affect his whole family.

The Corrupted is broadcast from Monday to Friday for the next two weeks at 2.15pm on BBC Radio 4, and stars Toby Jones – we like him – and features Ross ‘Grant’ Kemp as the narrator. That’s the cast in that picture. They’re not dressed up in period costume because it’s, like, radio.

Can you adam and eve it, the first episodes of ITV’s adaptions of Agatha POIROT_THE_BIG_FOURChristie’s Poirot stories and novels were broadcast way back in 1989. That’s, er, that’s, er – bear with me – that’s 24 years ago now!

This week ITV transmits the first of the final four adaptions, culminating in Christie’s controversial finale, Curtain, early next year. With the completion of the 66-episodes early next year, every literary work by Christie featuring Hercule Poirot will have been adapted. Along the way, David Suchet has made the part of the irrepressible little Belgian absolutely his own for all eternity. Yes, that long.

Set against the backdrop of the impending World War II, the first film, The Big Four, plunges Poirot into the world of global espionage.

Exercise your little grey cells on this blurb:

In an effort to demonstrate international unity, the Peace Party hosts a grand reception, which re-unites Poirot with his good friend Japp, now Assistant Commissioner of the Met. The illustrious crowd also includes English diplomat Stephen Paynter, and the French scientist and Peace Party stalwart, Madame Olivier. The American tycoon, and hearty backer of the Party, Abe Ryland, fronts the event, which climaxes in an exciting game of chess, where he takes on the reclusive Russian Grandmaster, Dr Ivan Savaranoff Poirot and Japp decide to pool resources following a series of murders.

Poirot realises that each of these crimes is so dramatic and expertly stage-managed as to be almost theatrical… and the murderer must indeed be a master of disguise in order to pull off such varied and ingenious plans.  Through a scrapbook found at Whalley’s house, he tracks down failing actress Flossie Monro, whom he believes may unwittingly be at the root of all this bloodshed.  However, before he can pursue his theories, Poirot himself is also killed! Or is he?

The Big Four is on ITV on Wednesday night at 8pm.

We’ve discussed, have we not, Hercule before? Here’s some information about Christie and her somewhat vexing relationship with the little man, in order to get you in the mood.

Boardwalk-Empire-S04-Keyart-16x9-1A more gritty evocation of life between the wars is Boardwalk Empire, which begins its fourth series on Sky Atlantic on Saturday night.

The show took a season or two to find its feet, I’d say, but it’s motoring along now. It’s a sumptuous evocation of the Prohibition era in Atlantic City with some terrific gangster characters, both real and imagined.

Atlantic City, February 1924: After barely surviving an overthrow by gangster Gyp Rossetti, Nucky Thompson is laying low at the end of the Boardwalk. But the calm will be short-lived, as Nucky faces new challenges, including a clash with the mayor, a battle with his brother Eli over Eli’s college-age son, and the irresistible lure of lucrative and perilous opportunities in Florida.

Nucky makes a peace offering to Joe Masseria while working the odds with Arnold Rothstein. While Chalky is busy running the Onyx Club on the Boardwalk, the impulsive Dunn Purnsley clashes with a booking agent. Gillian seeks custody of her grandson while trying to find a ‘good’ man to keep the Artemis Club afloat. Al Capone enlists his brothers to help him expand his business in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, while Richard Harrow returns to his violent ways.

The series is based on a real-life racketeer called Enock ‘Nucky’ Johnson, who controlled Atlantic City, and who lived till 1968. But creator Terence Winters – another of those talented writers who cut their teeth on The Sopranos – admits that the character, played by Steve Buscemi, is very much a fictionalized version.

If you haven’t seen it, you really should. It can be occasionally slow, carefully building character, but any series with Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Kelly McDonald and Stephen Graham – as Al Capone, no less – needs to be watched. It’s a classy box-set splurge of a show, so it is.

Now go forth and program your devices.

Hold That Thought

With Crime Thriller Fella’s summer readership flatlining faster than Jessica Fletcher’s Christmas Card List, it’s time to take a short break to catch some rays and recharge the batteries.

I’ve really enjoyed doing this blog over the last few months, and I’ve been amazed and gratified by the reaction to it. I’ve learned a lot about writing, and the blog has introduced me to some brilliant new authors.

There’s nothing more dispiriting, more likely to bring a lump to the throat, than a slowly-stagnating blog page, so I’m going to put up some archived reviews and other stuff, starting below. But feel free — if you’re new here, or just really love wasting time — to take a look around.

Back in a jiffy.

Criminal Minds: Agatha Christie

Think you know about crime thriller writers? Have nothing to contribute around the dinner-party table? Amaze your friends with some astonishing facts about the genre’s leading authors… First up, the woman who has sold more books than anyone, with the possible exception of God.

images1/ Agatha Christie wrote her first book after a dare by her sister Madge. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was turned down by six publishers. Since then, she’s sold about four billion novels. That’s four billion. She’s only outsold by The Bible.

2/ Christie famously made the headlines in 1926 when her car was found abandoned. She was missing for ten days. Her disappearance made the headlines, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even trotted out one of his  mediums in an attempt to find her. She was discovered staying under an assumed name in a Harrogate Hotel. The incident has never been fully explained – she refused to discuss the incident – but it’s suggested Christie suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of her mother and the discovery that her husband had had an affair. She was booked into the hotel under his lover’s name.

Unknown-53/ The final Miss Marple and Poirot books, Sleeping Murder and Curtain, were published in 1975 and 1976, but were actually written in the 1940s and kept locked away until Christie’s death – there’s forward thinking for you! In the event, she died in 1977.

4/ Curtain is a controversial end to the career of Christie’s Belgian detective – and the book ends with a vicious little twist. When Curtain was published in 1975, Poirot received an obituary in the New York Times, the only fictional character to have done so. If you haven’t read it, you’ll be able to see what the fuss was about when ITV broadcasts it as the final episode of the long-running David Suchet series.

5/ Christie grew to dislike her most famous creation, but the public’s appetite for Poirot never dimmed. By the 1960s, she had descended to name-calling. She regarded him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.” Christie  claimed to have seen him twice, once while taking tea at the Savoy.

6/ And Then There Were None is Christie’s bestselling book, with 100 million copies sold since 1939. Ten people, all implicated in murder, are invited to a remote island, and bumped off, one by one. Arguably, this concept has been used as a template again and again in countless slasher movies.

7/ Christie wrote romantic novels as Mary Westmacott, a pseudonym she managed to maintain for twenty years until it was discovered in 1949. It was as Westmacott that she reputedly wrote a whole novel, Absent In The Spring, over a weekend.

8/ Her play The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on 25 November, 1952, with Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, and, of course it’s still running. One cast member has survived all the cast-changes down the years. Deryck Guyler can still be heard reading the news bulletin.

9/Christie was irrirated that the last of the four Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films – Murder Ahoy! – wasn’t based on one of her novels. It was a flop at the box-office, much to the spurned author’s delight.

images-110/ When Christie died in 1976, London’s West End theatres dimmed their lights in respect.

For a the top ten best Christie novels, as listed by Agatha expert John Curran, go here.

TV Crime Log: A Caribbean Mystery

Unknown-1Cities will turn to dust, jungles become deserts and deserts oceans, but rest assured that a TV company  somewhere will be grinding out a new Miss Marple TV drama.

The spinster sleuth returns to ITV1 on Sunday night in the first of a new  series – the sixth, I believe – starring Julia Mackenzie. A Caribbean Mystery finds Marple on holiday at the Golden Palms resort, far from her usual hunting ground of St Mary Mead, when her vacation is rudely interrupted by a murder.

Though the old girl’s appearances were never quite as prolific as stablemate Poirot, Jane Marple appeared in 12 novels and numerous short stories. Agatha Christie created her after apparently being annoyed that an old lady in an adaptation of one of her books was changed to a young girl.

Marple’s first appearance was in 1926. In her early appearances she was more shrewish, an interfering busybody, but the character mellowed.

Despite her popularity, the character had to wait thirty years till Margaret Rutherford famously played the role in a series of films. Since then she’s been played by numerous actresses, incuding Joan Hickson, Helen Hayes, Angela Lansbury – tuning-up for her marathon stint as Jessica Fletcher! – and Geraldine McEwan.

Christie was always asked why Jane Marple never met Hercule Poirot. She pointed out that they were very different people and wouldn’t have gotten on at all well. Occasionally, however, minor characters have popped up in both sets of books.  Curiously, there was a Japanese anime series which featured the two sleuths.

In an interesting piece of meta-casting, A Caribbean Mystery also features Charlie Higson as James Bond. Bond is an ornithologist in A Caribbean Mystery – Fleming famously named his character after a twitcher – and Higson is, of course, the author of the Young James Bond novels.

Apropos of nothing, yesterday I was on my way to the launch of Nick Taussig‘s new novel The Distinguished Assassin — a review of that coming up next week — when I walked past this:

photoFunny old world.

Anyways, I expect you’ll be wanting to know what time A Caribbean Mystery is on — it’s 8pm.

Criminal Minds: Agatha Christie

Think you know about crime thriller writers? Have nothing to contribute around the dinner-party table? Amaze your friends with some astonishing facts about the genre’s leading authors… First up, the woman who has sold more books than anyone, with the possible exception of God.

images1/ Agatha Christie wrote her first book after a dare by her sister Madge. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was turned down by six publishers. Since then, she’s sold about four billion novels. That’s four billion. She’s only outsold by The Bible.

2/ Christie famously made the headlines in 1926 when her car was found abandoned. She was missing for ten days. Her disappearance made the headlines, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even trotted out one of his  mediums in an attempt to find her. She was discovered staying under an assumed name in a Harrogate Hotel. The incident has never been fully explained – she refused to discuss the incident – but it’s suggested Christie suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of her mother and the discovery that her husband had had an affair. She was booked into the hotel under his lover’s name.

Unknown-53/ The final Miss Marple and Poirot books, Sleeping Murder and Curtain, were published in 1975 and 1976, but were actually written in the 1940s and kept locked away until Christie’s death – there’s forward thinking for you! In the event, she died in 1977.

4/ Curtain is a controversial end to the career of Christie’s Belgian detective – and the book ends with a vicious little twist. When Curtain was published in 1975, Poirot received an obituary in the New York Times, the only fictional character to have done so. If you haven’t read it, you’ll be able to see what the fuss was about when ITV broadcasts it as the final episode of the long-running David Suchet series.

5/ Christie grew to dislike her most famous creation, but the public’s appetite for Poirot never dimmed. By the 1960s, she had descended to name-calling. She regarded him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.” Christie  claimed to have seen him twice, once while taking tea at the Savoy.

6/ And Then There Were None is Christie’s bestselling book, with 100 million copies sold since 1939. Ten people, all implicated in murder, are invited to a remote island, and bumped off, one by one. Arguably, this concept has been used as a template again and again in countless slasher movies.

7/ Christie wrote romantic novels as Mary Westmacott, a pseudonym she managed to maintain for twenty years until it was discovered in 1949. It was as Westmacott that she reputedly wrote a whole novel, Absent In The Spring, over a weekend.

8/ Her play The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on 25 November, 1952, with Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, and, of course it’s still running. One cast member has survived all the cast-changes down the years. Deryck Guyler can still be heard reading the news bulletin.

9/Christie was irrirated that the last of the four Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films – Murder Ahoy! – wasn’t based on one of her novels. It was a flop at the box-office, much to the spurned author’s delight.

images-110/ When Christie died in 1976, London’s West End theatres dimmed their lights in respect.

For a the top ten best Christie novels, as listed by Agatha expert John Curran, go here.