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.
You 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.