Books: Felix Francis keeps up the family novel business

Felix Francis looks forward to his name standing alone. But his latest book still includes his father’s name in the title: “Dick Francis’s Refusal.”

A New York Times best-selling author in his own right, Francis is best known as the son of prolific novelist Dick Francis, the champion British jockey who became a world-famous writer.

With two best-sellers under his belt since his father’s death in 2010, Felix Francis carries on the family franchise with a new horse-racing thriller starring his father’s most famous creation, jockey-turned-investigator Sid Halley. “Dick Francis’s Refusal” (Putnam, 371 pages, $26.95) becomes the fifth novel featuring Halley, who also inspired the British TV series “The Racing Game.” It’s also Felix’s third novel – or his eighth, counting his collaborations with his father.

“My American publisher insisted on calling it ‘Dick Francis’s Refusal,’” Felix lamented with a chuckle. “At least, Dad’s name is getting smaller and mine is a little bigger. Not that I mind. I’m very proud of my father. And I did borrow his character.”

To the delight of Dick/Felix Francis fans, Halley gets back into investigations after an eight-year hiatus. The retired jockey with an artificial hand is asked to look into possible race fixing involving several riders and a shadowy book maker, who likes to control the outcomes of more than horse races. Sucked into scandal, Sid also gets reunited with his old mate, Chico, a martial arts expert.

But now Halley has a wife and family. They figure into the novel’s high stakes as the fixer turns extortionist, kidnapper and killer. It’s the kind of page turner that fans of either Francis have come to expect.

“So many people asked me to bring back Sid,” Felix said in a phone interview from his home in Oxfordshire, England. “So many people love Sid and Chico; Chico’s just as cheeky as ever. In the end, I gave in. That’s why Sid made a comeback in the first place – popular demand.”

Sid Halley first appeared in “Odds Against” (1965), one of Dick Francis’ earliest works. The TV adaptation of Sid’s exploits in “The Racing Game” prompted Francis to bring back Sid in “Whip Hand” (1979). The character also anchored “Come to Grief” (1995) and “Under Orders” (2006), making him the only hero Francis used more than twice.

Felix Francis, 47, joined the family business with the kind of back story his father loved. A physics teacher and expert marksman, he actually inspired the central hero in one of his father’s novels, “Twice Shy.” Felix also headed expeditions to the Amazon, Himalayas, Andes and other exotic locations as part of leadership training for businessmen.

Like his father, Felix uses that diverse background to create memorable characters who find themselves in terrible dilemmas set in the action-packed world of horse racing.

When he died at age 89, Dick Francis left behind a legacy of 39 novels (plus an autobiography and short story collection). By the time of his father’s death, Felix already was deeply immersed in his father’s work. He (officially) co-authored his father’s final four novels after helping him with earlier books. He also served as his father’s manager.

Felix wasn’t the first family member enlisted to help Dick. Mary Francis served as her husband’s longtime researcher and collaborator.

“It was the worst-kept secret in publishing,” Felix said. “My mother and father really did the books together. I really took over the writing partly by accident.

“My parents’ last book together was ‘Shattered,’ and it was very well named,” Felix added. “That was 2000 and my father was absolutely shattered by the time it came out.”

Mary Francis died of a heart attack in 2000, leaving Dick adrift. Francis’ literary agent was quietly exploring the possibility of bringing in a ghost writer to help the author get back to work.

“His publisher had a real, real problem,” Felix recalled. “No one was reading the books any longer. My dad had 39 wonderful books; he sold 50,000 a year in the U.K. alone. His publisher wanted something new to stimulate sales (of these back copies).”

Francis’ literary agent asked Felix to contact a possible ghost writer.

“I told the agent, ‘Before you bring in anyone else, I’d like to have a go,’” Felix said. “He said, ‘Go talk to your father and get on with it.’ Dad wasn’t very keen on it at first, but then he did warm up.”

The result was “Under Orders,” which relaunched the elder Francis’ worldwide fame as well as Sid Halley’s.

“The book was a huge success,” Felix said. “What started as an exercise to stimulate back-list sales became a life of its own.”

And Felix’s life changed, too. His own work has earned the loyalty of his father’s fans and well as rave reviews. Publishers Weekly wrote, “Francis ably follows in the footsteps of his father ... . Fans will have a hard time distinguishing this solid thriller from the father’s work.”

As for Felix, he’s busy researching his next novel. Yes, it will be set in the world of British horse racing and will keep up the Francis thriller-a-year legacy.

“Now, I’m a full-time author,” Felix said. “Life is very full and very enjoyable. It’s hard work but a great job.”