I'm generally opposed to writers who make a career out of exploiting the name of more famous writers (and famous writers who get unknown authors to pen their books for them — James Patterson, stand up please).
But when a nice lady called Judi Heath mistakenly bought a Felix Francis novel thinking it was one by his father, Dick Francis (Dick's name is huge and prominent on the cover, Felix's less so) and she offered it to me to read when she was finished — I resolved to keep an open mind about the son following in his famed father's footsteps.
My first reaction was pleased surprise. I had low expectations, but it turns out Felix is a skilled writer. The horse racing background (in this case, the television presenting side) is thoroughly researched and well evoked. Not surprising when you learn that Felix used to help his dad with the research for his novels. And I was soon involved in the story. I was actually looking forward to picking up the book and finding out what happened next.
Felix Francis has some weaknesses in comparison to his father. Felix's dialogue is a bit awkward: "I hear through the press's grapevine that he'd found out about your affair." I don't think people really speak like that. And all the talk of presses and grapevines makes me think of winemaking.
Also, he suffers from what I call the hesitation syndrome. It's a maddening tendency not to just state something explicitly, but to hedge it around with qualifications. Hence Felix writes "I could almost feel the injection of adrenaline into my bloodstream that the countdown to the start had produced." Why not have the guy feel it instead of almost feeling it? Elsewhere he describes the music at party being turned up, "making further conversation difficult if not impossible." Why not just make it impossible? You get the picture. It just bugs me.
On the other hand, Felix Francis provides an enjoyably high standard of malevolent mayhem. There is some truly shocking violence. He also generates terrific suspense and provides some first rate surprises. These are all hallmarks of his father's writing, and indicate that Felix has studied the form carefully and done an admirable job putting the lessons into practise.
The sequence which would have really made his dad proud is the bit where our hero leaves a party, gets into his car and is about to drive off when a shadowy assailant lunges from the back seat and proceeds to garrote him. He only manages to save his life by starting the car and crashing it. But the best bit comes when the police turn up and, instead of being concerned about the assault, assume our hero is drunk and set about trying to charge him.
This is the sort of set piece which Dick Francis did so well (see the aftermath of the knife attack in Banker). It really revs up a reader's emotions — those goddamn cops! — and the ability to stir us up like that is the sign of a masterful writer. Felix Francis has learned his craft scrupulously and applies it skilfully. His stuff is highly readable and I'd happily devour another of his novels.
What is missing from his work only becomes evident when you pick up another book by his dad. There is an element of poetry — of vividness and beauty in the writing — and depth and subtlety in the characters and dialogue which Dick Francis has and which Felix (so far, I've only read this one book) doesn't have.
When you consider all the excellent things Felix Francis can do — and then realise that his father could do all that and more — you begin to see just how special Dick Francis was, and what a loss he is.
(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads, except the green audio book which is from Down Pour. I particularly like the elegant one at the top, by the very talented artist and designer Ben Perini. This is the edition I read. Thanks, Judi.)