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The Sport of Queens by Dick Francis (Penzler: $3.95; 254 pp., illustrated) : Dick Francis by Melvyn Barnes (Ungar: $17.95, hardcover; $9.95, paperback; 184 pp.)

September 07, 1986|William Murray | Murray is the author of "Tip on a Dead Crab" and "The Hard Knocker's Luck." He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. and

Dick Francis' amiable, good-humored autobiography was first published in Great Britain in 1957 and now makes its belated appearance here, with an additional chapter bringing us up to date on the author's life through 1981. Francis, as most of his loyal readers know, is the British ex-steeplechase jockey who turned his hand to writing during the summer of 1956, on the eve of his retirement, and has since become more celebrated as the creator of two dozen best-selling mysteries than he ever was as a rider. And this is not to belittle his abilities as an athlete. By the time Francis decided to hang up his tack, he had become one of the nation's top jump riders and had accomplished every feat but one--the winning of the Grand National at Aintree, which is contested over the world's most dangerous and difficult course and is the equivalent in its category of our Kentucky Derby.

The closest the author came to capturing this much coveted prize was on a horse called Devon Loch, owned by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, and the account of that race, with its bizarre finish, is the climax of this appealing book. Along the way, Francis tells us of his early years on farms and around stables (he learned to ride, on a donkey, at age 5) and of his boyhood determination to become a jockey. ("Give him gin, lad, give him gin," a friend of his father's advised. "That'll keep him from growing.") He ultimately provides an unfailingly interesting portrait of the British racing scene, a world in which every waking moment is spent dreaming, scheming and working around horses. He also makes it clear that it's not a bad way to live, especially since horse racing in England is more respectful of tradition and less money-grubbing than here.

The only serious reservation I have is the virtual absence in these pages of his wife Mary, who remains a mysterious background figure throughout, obviously by choice. Francis met her, "a girl in a brown dress, with pale gold hair," at a cousin's wedding in 1945 and knew at once that he would marry her. She reappears from time to time during the narrative, most dramatically as a victim of polio, but a clear picture of her never materializes. This is a shame, because she is undoubtedly a woman of intelligence, character and talent. Francis dedicates the book in part to her, "for more than she will allow me to say," and it is well known that she helped him with his research, perhaps even with his copy.

It would have been useful to know, especially since Francis is interesting on the subject of writing. What emerges here is a portrait of a disciplined craftsman, self-effacing, honorable and unpretentious, like the heroes of his novels. The lyricism he reserves for his first love, the racing itself. "There, everything is simple," he writes. "The confident stride of a good horse, the soaring lift over the birch, the safe landing, these are the whole of life."

Melvyn Barnes' "Dick Francis," on the other hand, is strictly for fans. He devotes a few pages to a brief biographical sketch of his subject, then launches into an exhaustive adulatory study of the author's intent, technique and achievements--book by book, character by character, with frequent quotations. The approach is not unlike that of a schoolteacher I once had who tackled the novels of Dickens as if they were crossword puzzles and solved them, to his satisfaction if not ours, with a ruthless pedanticism that succeeded in making a bore even out of Fagin.

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