As Easy as Falling Off a Horse

updated 11/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

DICK FRANCIS BEGINS EVERY NEW YEAR THE same way. Each Jan. 1, he rises early, takes a walk on the beach and a quick swim, then repairs to the balcony of his Fort Lauderdale condominium. There the 72-year-old author sits in a pink lawn chair, takes out an empty notebook and waits, pen poised, for inspiration. "It takes quite a time," he says. "I sit out there and think. After a while, you find the words coming."

Another year, another best-seller. Five months after this annual ritual, Francis delivers a manuscript—always a tightly wrought tale of horse racing and gambling, spills, thrills and what he calls "dirty deeds"—to his publisher. And each fall the Welshborn former jockey's eager public, including Britain's Queen Mother, devours a new Dick Francis mystery. His newest, Driving Force, like the 30 preceding it, promptly leapt onto best-seller lists here and in Britain. (Novelist Elizabeth Tallent, in The New York Times, called it "ingeniously entertaining"—standard praise for a Francis thriller.) He sells more than 200,000 hardcover copies of each new mystery—and millions more in paperback. "The books have done quite well," says Francis with characteristic understatement.

Francis requires silence to do his daily six or seven hours of writing, but he does not labor in solitude. His wife of 45 year, Mary, who is in 60s, tiptoes around their large, cluttered apartment and, without making a sound, brings her husband lunch; meanwhile, she keeps busy with some detective work of her own. When Francis needed aeronautical details for Flying Finish (1966). she took flying lessons. "I had never touched a small airplane before. and I absolutely loved it," says Mary, who ended up starling her own air-charter business—which she later sold—in 1975. For Reflex (1980), Mary learned photograph—and now she takes her husband's book-jacket photos. For Driving Force she hung around the local computer store investigating computer viruses. But, notes Dick, "she's told me she's not going to do any underwater research if I start writing about submerged things."

Mary can also, if needed, pop Dick's shoulder back into place when Francis, who's still fit though no longer rides, dislocates it doing simple tasks—a skill she perfected during his nine-year career as a champion steeplechase jockey. The son of a jockey turned horse dealer, Francis grew up in Pembrokeshire, Wales. After serving as a pilot in Africa dining World War II, he returned to Britain and began racing in 1947 at age 25.

That same year, he married Mary Brenchley, an honors graduate of London University who barely knew how to ride. Both sets of parents thought the match would be disastrous, as the two had little in common. But, says Mary, "it didn't matter to us. We just liked being together." In 1953. Francis was appointed jockey for the Queen Mother (with whom he now sometimes sits when he attends races in England), making champion—winning more races than anyone else—that year. Three years later, a spectacular spill in the last few yards of the Grand National cost him the race but also brought Francis to the attention of a literary agent, who suggested he write his autobiography.

Having little formal education, Francis was apprehensive. Man encouraged her husband to start writing things down "as though you were telling it to your uncle" and promised to check the spelling and grammar. She has been his editor ever since.

In 1957 The Sport of Queens appeared, and Francis also began writing a newspaper column. But, Mary told Dick, "we've got two sons to educate, the carpets are wearing thin and the ears are beginning to knock. If you were ever going to write a novel, now's the time." Francis decided to try his hand at a mystery. "I saw people buying them at train stations," he recalls. "And I thought. 'That's the field to get into; I can do that.' And I can, apparently."

In 1962 his first mystery, Dead Cert, based in part on his own racing experiences, was an instant success. Best-seller No. 2, Nerve, appeared in 1964, and, says the author, "there's been one every fall since." Francis's elder son, Merrick, 42, who owns a horse transport business in England, keeps him up to date on racing maters; son Felix, 39, recently quit his job as a high school physics teacher in England to become his father's business manager.

In 1983, in search of a climate more hospitable to Mary's asthma, the Francises moved horn Oxfordshire, England, to Florida. In Francis' off months, the couple travel together, sometimes researching locales for the next book. But when January rolls around, the writer will settle in on his balcony. Francis says he feels like quitting every year, but, as always, Mary urges him on. "I think, 'Oh, I've got all this work to do.' And Mary says, 'Oh, go on, write it.' " At this rate, he admits, "I might go on to the beginning of the next century."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
CINDY DAMPIER in Fort Lauderdale

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