It was fashionable in certain circles to sneer at Dick's books. That he had been a jockey when young, and that he personally presented a new copy of each book to the Queen Mother, seemed to speak of an oeuvre which was cosy and lightweight. He was seen as not having the intellectual heft of a Forsyth or an Ambler, let alone a Deighton or a le Carré. To those who thought that, more fool them. (And in fairness, he could also boast some heavyweight aficionados. Kingsley Amis was a big fan, and even more so Philip Larkin, who put Dick alongside Thomas Hardy as the two greatest English novelists of all time.)
Dick was a craftsman from start to finish. His title game was consistently strong: For Kicks, Twice Shy, Odds Against, High Stakes, Whip Hand and many more are as punchy and concise as you could imagine. He knew his way round an opening sentence: the following are from the first four books I picked at random off the many on my shelves.
'Thursday, March 17th. I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy and the evening unconscious.'
'The Earl of October drove into my life in a pale blue Holden which had seen better days, and death and danger tagged along for the ride.'
''You're a spoilt bad-tempered bastard,' my sister said, and jolted me into a course I nearly died of.'
'Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the centre of the parade ring at Dunstable races.'
He never wasted a word, yet he never shortchanged the reader either. His books were lean, clean, short and taut. He had a jockey's sense of pacing, knowing exactly when to canter and when to gallop. His set-piece scenes were wonderful. In Banker the hero is trapped in a horse box with a deranged horse trying to kick him to death, and Stephen King never wrote anything scarier or more visceral. In The Edge, the hero has to set a flare in the Canadian wilderness to stop two trains from crashing, and I held my breath longer than a free diver while reading it.
But to confine Dick to genre – 'just' a thriller writer, 'just' a mystery writer – is to do him an enormous disservice. He wrote men as well as anyone, equally sure-footed on the carapace of masculinity as on the shifting sands of fears and insecurities beneath that shell. The opening page of Proof, a widower reflecting on the infinite loneliness of an empty house, is heartbreaking. His heroes were good men, flawed men, ordinary men. They were jockeys and private investigators, wine merchants and toy makers, accountants and bankers, painters and photographers, diplomats and film directors.
They were all different, and yet at a deeper level they all fulfilled Raymond Chandler's dictum that 'down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.'
In the world these men inhabited, right always triumphed, but not without effort and certainly not without cost. The villains they faced were never moustache-twirling global megalomaniacs: they were also in their own way ordinary people who through flaw and circumstance had gone bad. And bad in Dick's world often meant very bad. For example, the villains' modus operandi in For Kicks is both breathtakingly cruel and chillingly plausible. (For Kicks is also my favourite of all his books, closely followed by Nerve, The Edge, High Stakes, Twice Shy... and I could give you another five just like that, and another five too.)
Last but not least, Dick was not just a wonderful writer: he was a wonderful man too. I chose his life and books as my specialist subject for the semi-final of Mastermind in 1996, and he came to watch. In I've Started So I'll Finish, Magnus Magnusson's history of Mastermind, he wrote: 'For Boris, [losing the contest] scarcely mattered: he spent the rest of the evening at the feet of his hero, and loved every minute of it.'
Dick and I had dinner that night, and he single-handedly gave the lie to the 'never meet your heroes' adage. He was charming, funny and kind: a gentleman and a gentle man. Before he left, he gave me a copy of Come To Grief, and wrote inside 'Many congratulations on doing so well in Mastermind. How I wish you had won.' It is one of my most treasured possessions.
Dick Francis was born on Hallowe'en in 1920 and died on Valentine's Day in 2010. He would, I'm sure, have been glad to have given so much pleasure to so many people. He taught me an awful lot not just about writing, but also about life. He was the best.
Boris Starling is the best-selling author of Messiah, Storm, Vodka, Visibility, and Unconquerable: The Invictus Spirit. You can follow him on Twitter @vodkaboris