You get to plan a dinner party for 4-8 of your favorite writers/artists/musicians/other notable figures, whether dead or alive. Who do you seat next to whom in order to inspire the most fun evening?
I haven’t given a party where people actually sit down to dinner for thirty odd years (and yes, some of them were odd) so the thought doesn’t exactly fill me with joy and confidence. But since it’s hypothetical, I guess I could hire caterers – and maybe a venue? – which would take the pressure off considerably. And better still, I’d invite my son. He’s a writer, so he’d be interested, but he’s also liberally endowed with an innate ability to connect with people and keep the social wheels turning without a squeak. Brief him to the hilt, sit back and let it rip. What more could I ask?As for the other guests: Dick Francis and his wife Mary.
Dick Francis was born in Wales, left school at 15 with the intention of becoming a jockey, served in the RAF during WWII and subsequently became a celebrity in the world of British National Hunt Racing. He won more than 350 races, was jockey to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and after his retirement from racing, worked as the racing correspondent for London’s Sunday Express. He published his first crime novel in 1962, and went on to write more than 40 international bestsellers.
That in itself is intriguing enough, but his wife’s role in his success adds a whole other level. Mary Francis had a degree in English and French from London University by the age of 19, worked as an assistant stage manager and later as a reader for a publisher. She was clearly no slouch. Her research for the Francis novels was extraordinary: for example for the novel Rat Race, she learned to fly and operated her own air taxi service; for Reflex, she mastered photography and the darkroom. She has always been recognised as her husband’s editor and collaborator, and after her death in 2000, the writing style of the novels changed. So speculation has always been rife as to how much was Dick Francis and how much was Mary.
But you know what? I don’t care.
To write 40 international bestsellers is no mean feat, and there’s no question that the stories were the main attraction, closely followed by the characters. But to me, the absolute joy of a Dick Francis novel is in the writing itself – so apparently simple, so admirably lucid, so perfectly paced. I’ve read them all several times, and still, I find myself almost laughing aloud at the sheer delight of the craftsmanship, the turn of phrase, and – again to me – the complete mastery of prose rhythm.
Prose rhythm isn’t something people think about a lot. Several popular modern writers have as much idea of it as frogs in a pond, but they sell, so does it matter? Possibly not. But it’s my belief that the ability to manipulate rhythm adds an extra dimension that readers appreciate intuitively. It enhances mood, creates dramatic effect, spells out relationships without an extra word. It affects pace, and in the end, sheer readability.
Dick Francis wasn’t Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway. His books will never rate as great literature. But in his own field, he was one of the best, for reasons above and beyond his ability to spin a good yarn.
And that’s what I’d like to talk about.