RARA-AVIS: Hard-boiled Dick Francis

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 24 Feb 2008

Dick wrote:

> Hardboiled? Soft-boiled? Parboiled? I suppose it's in the mind of the
> reader. But I think some (not all) of Francis' novels are filled
> with too
> much sadistic violence and detailed torture, too many depressed
> heroes with
> wives or relatives dying of cancer or living in iron lungs, too many
> animal
> mutilations, too many truly sociopathic villains to be put in the
> Christie-Queen-Stout category. And if the Sid Halley novels aren't
> hardboiled, with the hapless jockey-turned-private detective getting
> more of
> his destroyed hand lopped off in each, then I'd be hard-pressed to
> come up
> with a book that is.

I agree with Dick. This idea that Francis' books are full of "genteel people who find themselves in the midst of a criminal conspiracy by no fault of their own" is to have severely misread the books -- or to perhaps have settled for reading the back cover summaries.

Most of Francis' heroes, if not working class, definitely work for a living: they're jockeys, private detectives, photographers, reporters, security agents, adventure writers, etc. and like most characters in hard-boiled lit, they're professionals, taking a certain pride in what they do because they're good at it, a trait that stretches back at least to Race Williams and the Op. Dick's tone is crisp and terse, and he's one of the few writers in the genre to confront the aftereffects of violence. No phony baloney miracle-cure-by-bourbon here; when Francis' characters are hurt, they HURT. And in the Sid Halley books in particular, the effects are certainly permanent, carrying on from one book to the next.

I'm not quite sure why his characters are considered genteel. Because they're are generally British, and can move from room to room without dragging their knuckles? Because some of them are members of the upper classes? Seems to me Marlowe tangled with several upper crust types as well. Does that makes Marlowe's adventures "genteel"?

And "innocents" finding themselves "in the midst of a criminal conspiracy" is a trademark not just of most amateur sleuth mysteries, but also a typical noir scenario. In fact, the basic plots of many amateur sleuth novels, particularly standalones, and noir novels and films are remarkably similar -- it's the themes and stylistic tone that differ.


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