Spinster, Victim, Soldier, Spy: Dick Francis and The Evolution of Female Characters in Crime Fiction

By Rohan MaitzenAugust 24, 2013

Spinster, Victim, Soldier, Spy: Dick Francis and The Evolution of Female Characters in Crime Fiction

UP UNTIL ABOUT 1982, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman in crime fiction. The options were so limited: spinster, dame, victim, femme fatale. Yes, there are exceptions — the deceptively unthreatening Miss Marple, for example, or P.D. James’s  Cordelia Gray. But these female characters stand out precisely because they aren’t the rule. In noir fiction especially, as Ian Crouch succinctly observes, the women are “often no more than projections of male desire.” In these stories, a woman’s only strength is her sexual allure, which both tempts and threatens the genre’s tough-talking private eyes. “She was trouble,” Philip Marlowe says of Vivian Regan in The Big Sleep; her sister Carmen has “little sharp predatory teeth.” Later, Marlowe’s resistance to Carmen’s advances unleashes her inner viper:

She sat there naked, propped on her hands, her mouth open a little, her face like scraped bone. The hissing noise came tearing out of her mouth as if she had nothing to do with it.

“Women made me sick,” concludes Marlowe bitterly — and the worst thing is that we can’t blame him, any more than we can blame Sam Spade for refusing to compromise his principles (and let down his murdered partner) for a manipulative liar like Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She may only be doing her best to survive in a man’s world, but the terms of that world are also the terms of the novels; we can’t separate the detectives’ misogynistic points of view from the world view of the books they inhabit. To be sure, the sexist dichotomies of hard-boiled detection are extremes, but historically, crime fiction made little room for women on their own terms. “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman,” Watson says of Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” But who wants to be the woman, rather than her own woman?

To be a woman in a Dick Francis novel, on the other hand — now that’s something I would consider. Even three decades after women writers including Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky set new standards for the genre’s gender politics, introducing heroines who are tough, smart, and unapologetic, Francis unexpectedly holds his own.

I say “unexpectedly” because you might not predict this from a summary introduction to Francis’s oeuvre. A retired champion jockey, Francis wrote nearly a book a year from his 1962 debut Dead Cert until his death in 2010. (His last novels are co-written with his son Felix, who carries on the franchise today.) Always set in or around the world of horse racing, they are thrillers, with all the hallmarks of the genre: suspenseful, action-packed, and often graphically violent. His protagonists are all men, and as the novels are uniformly in first-person, they are all limited, quite literally, to a male perspective. Yet not only does Francis contribute to the project of revising women’s roles in crime fiction; he also works on a complementary problem that writers like Grafton and Paretsky found harder to solve than the first: rewriting men. As feminist critic (and pseudonymous mystery writer) Carolyn Heilbrun has pointed out,

Lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard … Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

Though the book from which this is taken is called Writing a Woman’s Life, the stories we tell about women are not the only ones that matter. What, for instance, would a good partner for Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski or Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone look like — or, more important, act like and think like? As V. I. explains in Indemnity Only, “With men, it always seems, or often seems, as though I’m having a fight to maintain who I am.” What kind of a man confidently coexists with women who upset so many expectations about autonomy, strength, and the distribution of power? What story do we tell about him? We find some answers to these questions in Dick Francis’s novels.


“With a woman so straightforwardly intelligent I could have been content forever,” thinks Tim Ekatarin, the protagonist of Francis’s Banker (1982), as he wistfully contemplates the woman who is (unfortunately for him) his boss’s wife. Within the next 30 pages, Tim has met two more “straightforwardly intelligent women”: Pen Warren, a highly-regarded pharmacist, and Ursula Young, a bloodstock agent who is “50, tough, good-looking, dogmatic, and inclined to treat [Tim] as a child.”

Straightforwardly intelligent women like these ones are both refreshingly abundant and highly valued in Francis’s novels. This is surely much of the reason so many women enjoy these books — and that someone like Heilbrun (an astute critic as well as a writer of crime fiction herself) can identify Francis as a “feminist” writer and one of her own personal favorites, as he has long been one of mine. His men move in a world full of women with interests and power of their own: competent professional women going about their business and finding it fulfilling, with no need of a man to affirm or applaud their choices, or to reward or punish them for their sexuality.

There’s publisher Clare in Reflex, for instance, whose first interest in hero Philip Nore is as the possible source of her first bestselling book; there’s journalist Danielle in Break In, who “comes alive” at work and whose collaboration proves essential to hero Kit Fielding’s success at the case; there’s police constable Catherine Dodd in Shattered; there’s insolvency practitioner Margaret Morden in To the Hilt — and also, in the same book, hero Alexander Kinloch’s ex-wife Emily, whose commitment to her work as a trainer is as total as Alexander’s to his painting. Watching her “in her natural element,” moving confidently around her stable yard, Alexander

vividly understood again how comprehensively she belonged in that life, and how essential it was to her mind’s well-being.

He feels regret but no resentment that she, no more than he, was able to give up the career she loves for the person she loves.

These and many other women are allies, collaborators, resources for the heroes — and sometimes love interests, but their appeal as lovers is precisely their autonomy and strength: Francis never sets romance up as a rescue scenario. The closest we come is with The Damage, in which the protagonist’s work is resolving kidnappings, and then, though he does fall in love with the young woman he has saved, he is only too aware that her indebtedness threatens the integrity of their relationship:

I could have tried, I supposed, to turn her dependence on me into a love affair, but it would have been stupid: cruel to her, unsatisfactory to me. She needed to grow safely back to independence, and I to find a strong and equal partner. The clinging with the clung-to wasn’t a good proposition for long-term success.

The range of Francis’s female characters goes well beyond the "love interest," though. He is particularly interested in confronting conventional ways of valuing women, or of devaluing them for not being, for instance, either ideally young or ideally maternal. As early as Nerve (1964), he gives us a hero at ease with a mother whose first allegiance is to her career as a world-class musician:

I had seen hardened music critics leave her performances with tears in their eyes. So I had never expected a broad motherly bosom to comfort my childish woes, nor a sock-darning, cake-making mum to come home to.

In Twice Shy (1981), the hero is chastened to realize he has underestimated a witness because of her age:

“I have done you,” I said slowly, “an injustice.”

“Everyone does,” she said indifferently. “I look in my mirror. I see an old face. Wrinkles. Yellow skin. As society is now constituted, to present this appearance is to be thrust into a category. Old woman, therefore silly, troublesome, can be pushed around.”

In To the Hilt, Alexander meets his match for brains and persistence in the indomitable 80-year-old Zoë Lang, “a retired lecturer in English from St Andrew’s University … with a comet tail of distinguished qualifications after her name.” Far from feeling threatened at her arrogant expertise, the whole time they do battle over her determination to claim a cherished family heirloom “for the nation” Alexander is fascinated by her charisma:

I thought how much the outward appearance of age could colour one’s expectations of a person’s character … I strongly sensed a singular individual powerful entity that might have intensified with time, not faded.

He paints her as he understands her, with her spirit looking out from the prison bars of age. When she sees the portrait, she lays down her arms: “I will not fight you,” she tells him; “you have made me immortal.” Though not always achieved, this engagement as equals, on whatever terms best suit the individuals, is the ideal standard for all relationships in Francis’s novels.

Alexander’s insightful gaze is entirely unlike the voyeurism of The Big Sleep, where women’s legs are “arranged to stare at.” But I don’t mean to suggest that the world of Dick Francis is some kind of sexism-free utopia. It’s not that his heroes never ogle or lust after women, or even, as in 1991’s Comeback, ask them rather cavalierly for "a bonk" (though in context, to be fair, it’s a welcome invitation). Among the more discomfiting tropes to recur is "falling for the girl who’s still too young" — though on the bright side, all of these men nobly resolve to wait for her to grow up. The most serious wobble is Francis’s last solo effort, Under Orders (2006), in which the hero is unbecomingly preoccupied with the stunning looks of his scientist girlfriend Marina. At one point when she is viciously attacked with a knife, “it was her beauty that worried [him] most”:

I could see that there were two places on her face from which the blood was flowing, one was a deep cut over her right eye and the other was a nasty split lower lip. Head wounds nearly always look worse than they are due to their profuse bleeding, but I could see that these two were bad enough for stitches and I hoped they wouldn’t leave scars.

His concern might be for Marina’s sake, but he’s not the only one thus preoccupied: his colleague Charles, seeing the damage, is “genuinely shocked that anyone could have hit a woman, especially one clearly so beautiful as Marina.”

It would be handy to be able to attribute these slips into voyeurism (or worse) to individual protagonists, but there’s not a lot of mileage to be had in differentiating one Dick Francis hero from another. These “spots of commonness” (to use George Eliot’s phrase) are corporate ones, as it were. That they stand out in such relief, however, marks the extent to which the rest of the women in the rest of the books have (and are treated as having) all the autonomous and various humanity we could want — and to which condescending chivalry (the veil thrown over Charles’s embarrassing attitude) is not usually Francis’s default model of ideal masculinity.


So what is? Considering how many novels there are, generalizations are actually surprisingly easy. All of Dick Francis’s novels are written in first-person, and it wouldn’t be altogether unfair to say that they all have the same narrator. Whether he’s a jockey, a pilot, a meteorologist, a banker, a chef, or a glass blower, the Dick Francis hero is honorable, strong-minded, resourceful, and physically resilient. Also, he is only inadvertently heroic: he finds himself staring corruption or evil in the face and discovers that he cannot walk away.

Much of his appeal comes from this discovery, from the emergence of his strength from principle, rather than privilege. There’s something reassuring about him — not in the way that Robert B. Parker’s Spenser is reassuring, with his near-total imperviousness to harm and his ability to outthink, outfight, and outgun any opponent. When there’s trouble and Spenser is called in, you just know he’ll deal with it: he and Hawk and the rest of their network of tough guys are crime fiction’s superheroes, and reading Parker lets us enjoy the fantasy that such men exist in human form. Reading Francis, in contrast, encourages us to believe that within the most ordinary of us lives a hero who is just like our best selves, only braver.

Francis’s 40 novels offer us nearly 40 variations on these themes, with only two repeat characters: steeplechase jockey Kit Fielding, who appears in two books, and jockey-turned-private-eye Sid Halley, who appears in four. The best developed of Francis’s characters, Halley exemplifies what it means — and what it takes — to be a man in the world of Dick Francis.

He first appears in Odds Against (1965). Before the action of that book, his left hand has been irreparably injured in a racing accident. By the end of it, he has lost it completely due to the psychopathic cruelty of the lead villain — another trademark, by the way, of the Francis corpus. In his second book, Whip Hand (1979), Sid wears a myoelectric prosthetic hand. Though it can be (and, in the course of the novel, inevitably is) wielded like a club, it represents not strength but weakness, as Sid’s greatest, near-paralyzing fear is losing his other hand and thus what remains, as he sees it, of his independence. His efforts to fight through this fear epitomize the qualities of the Dick Francis hero: stronger in determination than in body, morally powerful but otherwise susceptible. These are heroes who have to earn their success with every step. Threatened by a new villain with irreparable damage to his right hand, Sid is temporarily overcome by his own powerful desire to settle for his own safety:

All the fear I’d ever felt in all my life was as nothing compared with the liquefying, mind-shattering disintegration of that appalling minute. It broke me in pieces. Swamped me. Brought me down to a morass of terror, to a whimper in the soul.

And he does back off the case, until he realizes that this is no way to “be whole again”:

If I had to choose, and it seemed to me that I did have to choose, I would have to settle for wholeness of mind, and put up with what it cost. Perhaps I could deal with physical fear. Perhaps I could deal with anything that happened to my body, and even with helplessness. What I could not forever deal with […] and I saw it finally with clarity and certainty [...] was despising myself.

Outwardly as taciturn as Sam Spade, Sid is devastatingly frank with us (and with himself) about his emotional vulnerability.

Though the outward behavior is familiar, that is, and fitted to the genre of the thriller, the inner life of the Dick Francis hero is precisely not stereotypically masculine. Sometimes, in fact, the emphasis is overtly on the cost of achieving (or appearing to achieve) conventional manliness. Tony Beach in 1984’s Proof, for example, is one of several widowers in Francis’s novels. He is devastated by his loss, and finds his suffering intensified by the social taboo against expressing it:

Agony is socially unacceptable. One is not supposed to weep. Particularly is one not supposed to weep when one is moderately presentable and 32. When one’s wife has been dead for six months and everyone else has done grieving …

But oh dear God … the emptiness in my house. The devastating, weary, ultimate loneliness … Half of myself had gone; the fulfilled joyful investment of six years’ loving, gone into darkness. What was left simply suffered ... and looked normal.

After the catastrophe that sets the novel’s thriller plot in motion, Tony returns to his dark, empty house:

I let myself in and went upstairs to change my clothes, but when I reached the bedroom I just went and lay on the bed without switching on the lamps; and from exhaustion, from shock, from pity, from loneliness and from grief ... I wept.

Exhausted, immobilized, weeping: what kind of hero is this? A human one, we might respond — but it is as much a revision of idealized masculine strength as V. I. Warshawski is of the vamps and victims women have so often played in crime fiction.

Tony himself is well aware that he is not living up to expectations. He learned what was expected of a man from his father: “a soldier, [he] had won both the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Gold Cup, dashing as valiantly into steeplechase fences as he had into enemy territory.” His father, in turn, was “a distant Titan who had finished second one year in the Grand National before covering himself with military glory in World War I.” Throughout his life Tony has had “deep powerful feelings of inferiority” because he lacks “their dash, their flare, their daredevilment.” Having seen his father die of a broken neck racing at Sandown, he knows that this identity is won at a cost, but it’s not until after he has stared death in the face and walked away, full of “a sort of restless exultation” for having proven his courage, that he discovers that his father too felt the pressure to “be a man” as a burden:

I felt nearer to him than ever before. I felt his true son.

He had written ... at not quite my present age, he had written:

The battle must be soon now. It is essential not to show fear to the men, but God, I fear

Why can’t I have the courage of my father

As Heilbrun says, we “retell and live by the stories we have read or heard.” Tony’s story reminds us that men too may need “new fictions” — it’s not really any better to be (or aspire to be)the man, any more than the woman. 


No question, the world of Dick Francis’s novels is still very much a masculine one, and his heroes embody many of the qualities that define conventional manliness. But their struggles to live up to or redefine them complement the work of women writers and characters to revise the dominant narratives of femininity. Power, autonomy, and humanity are not zero-sum games, but in crime fiction it has been easier (or at least more common) to make that case from the demand side. It would be nice to take for granted the kind of man who doesn’t make a woman like V. I. Warshawski fight to maintain her identity, but as one jaded character remarks to Alexander Kinloch in To the Hilt, “I’m not used to people like you.” If you read enough Dick Francis novels, though (and there are plenty to go around), you just might get used to them — and that’s a pretty thrilling prospect.


Rohan Maitzen teaches in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

LARB Contributor

Rohan Maitzen teaches in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs about literature and criticism at Novel Readings.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!