Felix Francis is a British crime writer and Dick Francis’s youngest son. For 40 years Felix assisted Dick with the research and writing of many of his iconic novels. When Dick died in February 2010, Felix took over the writing duties with great success. His latest novel, Crisis came out last year and is set in Newmarket. You can see Felix in person at Slaughter in Southwold in June.
1. Who were your literary heroes and influences as you were growing up?
Dick Francis, obviously. He was my greatest influence but I also stayed awake late into the night reading the wonderful adventure stories of Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes and Nevil Shute, plus the crime novels of P. D. James and Agatha Christie.
I was lucky enough to have known both of those formidable ladies quite well as they were friends of my parents. Indeed, I used to regularly make tea for Agatha Christie!
2. What was it like growing up in a household where the family business was writing bestselling thrillers?
Very exciting. Conversation over the breakfast table was more likely to be about whether Sid Halley could survive the night with a .38 slug in his guts than who was doing the school run. The whole family was involved in research. It was the family business and my mother was much involved in the creation of the books.
The first of my father’s novels, Dead Cert, was published when I was only eight years old and then there was a new book every year for the next 38 years, so the annual routine of writing, editing, copy-edit, proofs, promotion, and then thinking up a new story to start the writing again, was all I knew.
My mother was also very theatrical, having worked in repertory theatre after the Second World War, so our home was always full of both writers and actors. It was not unusual to see Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army on the television one night, and then him be in our kitchen for supper the next.
3. You spent 17 years teaching physics before you started to write. That was quite a career change. Was it a difficult decision at the time?
I didn’t move directly from teaching to writing. There was a 14 year gap between me leaving the classroom and my first novel being published.
When I was still teaching, I was also helping my father with his accounting and other managerial tasks. However, with the introduction in schools of the National Curriculum in the late 1980s, plus my role as Head of Science, I was finding that I didn’t have the time to do much for him. He asked if I would give up my day job to be his full-time manager. That I did in 1992, and I also became deputy chairman of World Challenge Expeditions Ltd, a leadership-training company for young people.
I started writing crime stories almost by mistake. My father’s literary agent had lunch with me, as my dad’s manager, and he said that all the Dick Francis books were in danger of going out of print and we needed a new hardback to keep interest in the backlist alive. My father was 85 by this time and my mother had died five years previously, so I told him there was no chance. He replied that what he really wanted was my permission to ask another established crime writer to write a ‘Dick Francis Novel’ by so-and-so. Well, I must have had a few glasses of red wine by then because I said to him that, before he asked anyone else, I would like to have a go.
He gave me two months to write two chapters and openly admits that he expected to get my permission to ask who he wanted after that. But those two chapters impressed him and he told me to finish it. So I did. That book was published in 2006 and it went straight to the top of the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, and, as they say, the rest is history.
4. Your 13th novel, Crisis, was released in September. What can Suffolk readers expect with this one?
Thrills and spills, emotional highs and lows, plus quite a lot of horse racing.
This book, as with all my books, is written as a first-person narrative and my narrator character in this book is Harrison (Harry) Foster, who doesn’t like horses and knows nothing about racing. He is a crisis management consultant and he is sent to Newmarket after a fire in a stable kills seven horses, including the short-priced favourite for the Derby. Harry has to learn fast about the Sport of Kings and he discovers that all is not as it first appears — human remains are found amongst the equine ones.
The book is almost totally set in Newmarket and my Suffolk readers will recognise many of the places. They might also learn a bit, not only about racing but also about the town known in racing circles simply as ‘Headquarters’.
5. Do you ever have time to read any other fiction authors, or is most of your time spent researching the next book?
I have to admit that I don’t read much fiction, although I usually find time to read the books of my closest friends, like Peter James and Simon Brett. I mostly read biographies and histories but only in the summer months when I’m not actually writing. Creating a full-length novel is such an all-consuming exercise that I try not to let anything else get in the way.
6. You are visiting Suffolk in June for Slaughter in Southwold. Harrison Foster visited Newmarket, so I’m guessing you are familiar with this part of the world?
I am familiar only with a certain corner of Suffolk — Newmarket. Other than that, the county is a mystery to me so I am looking forward to seeing Southwold and its surrounding area in June. Phyllis (P. D.) James used to speak about it a lot. She had a house there and set several of her books in and around Southwold, even if the names of places used in the books were fictitious.
7. Is it true that you can quote the opening line of several of your dad’s books?
Not just several — all of them! At least I used to be able to although I might be a touch rusty these days.
First lines are vitally important. My father spent hours on his. He always said that he had watched people in bookshops pick a book from the shelf, read the first line, and then put it back again. You have to catch them, right there and then, with just that one sentence. ‘Art Matthews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the centre of the parade ring at Dunstable races.’, or ‘The Earl of October drove into my life in a light blue Holden, and death and destruction tagged along for the ride.’ Try reading those Dick Francis first lines and then put the book back on the shelf.