Francis and MacLean

Last week’s post about the modern gothic romance led to an interesting comment thread, as a discussion of Alistair MacLean sprang up in the comments. While I had not read Mary Higgins Clark before the book I reviewed last week, MacLean was an old familiar friend. I don’t recall when I first encountered him – but I was young, probably a preteen. The First Reader and I were talking about him, and for some reason Dick Francis – another childhood favorite of mine – came up. Their main characters had much of the same outlook on life, he commented. I agreed. Perhaps Francis was influenced by MacLean? he suggested. I turned back to the computer and looked it up.

There is a certain astringency to both men’s writing. Dick Francis is known for his racetrack mysteries, centered around jockeys, gleaming thoroughbreds, and nefarious crimes. MacLean wrote mostly of war, his men near noir in their grim outlooks, and his women often doomed in terrible ways. There is a flavor, for lack of a better word, in common when it comes to their leading men. But that comes from the author’s shared experiences, not from an influential passing-down. I discovered when I looked them up that although I had encountered Francis much later and associated the books I’d read with glossy modern copies, and my MacLean with often battered older paperbacks, they were in fact contemporaries.

The shared experience of having served and fought in World War II is instead what lead to the similarities. Francis fought as a pilot in the RAF. MacLean’s HMS Ulysses is very near to autobiographical. I was delighted to discover that the verisimilitude of both their writing came from the basis of having been there, done that. I’d already known Francis had been a jockey – I just hadn’t realized he’d fought in the war. Ultimately, their books would go on to shape me and what I was looking for in a beau ideal – but more than that, I internalized some of their writing as they influenced my work. When I joined a SF group on FB recently (I was invited and saw friends, so I thought it would be ok. Readers, it was very soon Not OK. And that was how I came to realize I’ve been deeply scarred by Fandom.) I was reading the introductions of dozens of my fellow writers, and realized something. While I did read Fantasy and SF as a girl, they weren’t my favorites. Instead, I sought out other authors, first, and settled for an Anne McCaffrey if I could find her (and Pern was not my favorite, the Pegasus in Space books were) and I was forbidden to read Heinlein (I sneaked him, later in my teens).

Also, SFF wasn’t as easy for me to acquire. At home, there were shelves full of Westerns. MacLean and Cussler were some of my Dad’s pleasure reads. From Mom, I read Grace Livingston Hill, Georgette Heyer, and Louisa May Alcott (so much more than Little Women). The first book set I was ever given, new, was LM Montgomery’s Anne series, along with the Emily of New Moon books. The libraries near us were usually small, since we lived rurally and then in Interior Alaska which is lightly populated. I made do with what I could find, and Maclean’s books resonated with that era of men following the wars. Men like my Dad, who served in the military for a decade. He went in following in his father’s footsteps, and he fully expected to wind up in a war, the big one, the war to end all wars… but the Cold War warmed up abruptly and Dad discovered that he wasn’t considered a veteran and was barred from entry to clubs of his fellows. He read Tom Clancy, and passed the books on to me, and through the pages of Red Storm Rising and Red October I got a glimpse of my father’s service. He wasn’t bitter about what happened after he left the military – I have never forgiven it.

It’s fascinating to see how much of an author’s life leaks through onto the pages. It’s not always a truism – there are certainly authors who do a masterful job of portraying places and people they have never been – but when I look back at the books of Francis and MacLean I can see how their lives colored their fiction. Just as you can with Ian Fleming’s Bond, drawn from his WWII experience as well. I can also see why all three were no favorites of the elite of the literati – they were real men, who had done real things, and their experiences crept into their books. Which is what made their books so popular. I like the quote from Alistair MacLean,

“I’m not a novelist,” he once said. “That’s too pretentious a claim. I’m a storyteller, that’s all. I’m a professional and a craftsman. I will make that claim for myself.”


Gratuitous promotion: I’m in an anthology! I have a version of a Russian fairytale in this collection of a dozen romantic fantasy stories. You can find Hearts’ Enchantment at any fine book retailer, but the link will take you to Amazon.

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24 thoughts on “Francis and MacLean

  1. I didn’t read much MacLean, but I read a whole bunch of Dick Francis in junior high. I’ve been looking for his older stuff on Amazon, because, of course, I want to re-read what I read, not the newer books. It seems hard to find.

    My dad no longer has his old copies, and my brother isn’t admitting to them.

    Thank you for this. You have filled me with resolve to renew my efforts.

  2. I will dig HMS ULYSSES from the book nook in Decatur Georgia or somewhere, for I have’nt sampled Mac Lean. I found the race horse world of Dick Francis very interesting.

  3. Most of Dick Francis’ characters, faced with a situation that would ordinarily require violence to solve, managed to use a type of “situational judo” instead. It took me quite a while to realize what a difficult hat trick that type of writing is…

    Francis’ later books are very much less than his earlier ones. It turned out his health went bad and he spent a long time dying; at first others “helped” him finish books in progress, then he was just directing them, and I’m not sure he had any input into the last ones at all.

    My main problem with MacLean was that a story would sometimes start in the middle, referring to previous things that were never described, or I’d be reading along, and suddenly something else was happening and I’d be scrambling to try to figure out what was going on.

    Even back then, ignorant of the way sausage and novels are made, it felt like someone had just snipped big sections out to fit a page count. Maybe just his style, but I found it annoying enough MacLean dropped from “Yay! A MacLean I haven’t read!” to “if it’s cheap I’ll buy it, and read it if there’s nothing else that looks likely at the time.”

  4. Interesting! I hadn’t known about Francis’ war experiences, but have long remembered his take on “writing what you know.” Asked by an interviewer why his heroes so often get badly hurt, he said that he’d been a steeplechase jockey for many years and so he knew a whole lot about injuries.

    1. It shows. When his heroes take a fall or a beating or a gunshot wound, the Injuries hurt, and they keep hurting for a long time.

      1. I think he was too modest to say this, but the books also show that he knew a lot about the kind of courage it takes to stick to your goals despite serious pain and injury.

    2. Any interest I might have had riding steeplechase faded when I read about how many professional jockeys have their collar-bones removed, so they can’t break them again. No thank you!

      1. Archaeologists observes that the injuries most found in Neanderthals are also those most found from rodeo sports. I think I don’t want to go in for rodeo OR being a Neanderthal.

  5. I thought it was mostly when Dick Francis’s wife died that the quality of his writing fell off a cliff. She had been somewhat credited in the introductions and acknowledgements, but just how important she was as a coauthor wasn’t evident until her input wasn’t there anymore.

    MacLean’s earlier stuff was also better. His characters got flatter, the plots thinner, and his writing started to lose the fizz. Everything up through “The Way to Dusty Death” was a thriller, after that, I can barely read it.

  6. MacLean was kind-of thrust on teens in the ’60s from the Navarrone books. Then _Where_Eagles_Dare_ all three movies disappointed this reader. As did the later _Satan_Bug_. I’ve only read a couple of Dick Francis’s novels. I seem to recall he wrote an occasional column for Writer’s Digest.

    1. There was a curious coincidence with the movie that they made from “The Guns of Navarone” – Anthony Quayle (who played the young officer who got terribly injured and had to be left behind halfway into the mission) had actually been in SOE, been a British liaison officer to partisans in Nazi-occupied Albania during the war. In the movie, he was playing what he had been in real-life. Ran across this interesting factoid when I was in college – reading a book about SOE, and there he was in a picture of staff at some wartime dirty tricks training course. “Oh, my, isn’t that …” and yes, it was.

    2. I thought “Where Eagles Dare” was a pretty good movie (They should have used the soundtrack for the Castle Wolfenstein games). You just had to take it on its’ own terms.

      Similarly with the Navarrone films, although they horribly miscast David Niven as Miller and the even more horrible rewrite/casting of Anthony Quayle as Maj Franklin instead of Lt Stevens from the book. Eastwood would have done much better as Miller despite not physically matching the character.

  7. A curious thing about Maclean. Through him I first encountered the word “lugubrious.” (From “Where eagles Dare.” ) I grokked the meaning from the context – a mechanic working on a helicopter in freezing weather barehanded with metal tools.Never even bothered to look up the official definition until a few years ago, and found that definition less vivid than the analogy. I have used the word frequently ever since.

  8. I only found MacLean a few years ago, but I snatch up his books whenever I find them at the thrift store. The older the better. I love old paperbacks. As for Dick Francis, I read a ton of his stuff when I discovered him back in the early 2000s, but I haven’t gotten back to him. Maybe he’ll join MacLean on my ‘must buy’ used paperback list.

    I also recently discovered Helen MacInnes. Now there’s a good author story. If I remember right, her and her husband were deep into the espionage stuff and she writes it very well. But I think her early stuff is better than her newer stuff. Your mileage may vary.

    1. That seems to be quite common; I can’t think of any authors offhand who got *better* as they went along.

      Most often, it’s like they have this cache of stories they want to tell, and despite whatever stylistic deficiencies, they’re worth reading. And later it seems like they run out of things to say, which seems odd… maybe the stories they want to tell doesn’t fit within the framework of “the right way” they learned by experience.

      When I pick up a brand new novel by an established author, I seldom expect it to be better than the last one. Mostly, I’m hoping I won’t stick it in the trade pile unfinished.

      1. Thing is, I think there’s a curve, and most authors peak somewhere around the middle of their career. Then they get protection from editors and get lazy, and their books start getting worse. Then, if they write long enough, senility sets in.

          1. No, because indy is going to change that calculation too. A writer under a publisher might be able to indulge that attitude, because the publisher can be persuaded to run that kind of interference. In indy land, you won’t necessarily have an editor to ignore. If you ignore your customers, they can and will go find something else, because they aren’t limited to the curated few things to read.

          2. No, because you’re not a cash cow to be milked by a publisher who ought to have been up-front with you about “You’re getting lazy with [whatever]” or “Don’t touch [Great Author’s] work! Ignore any problems, because they are [Great Author] and we’ll make even more off of them without paying for editing.” Or worse. “Don’t tell the family about [Great Author]’s problems because we’re still making money off of them.” You learn, because we indie readers get fast feedback from fans. I.e. we see the revenue drop, and we get to read the reviews unfiltered.

            Keep writing! Excelsior!

  9. I found Dick Francis when I was stationed at Kadena AFB Okinawa 1972-3. I ran out of SF/F to read. I also found Louis L’Amour, Luke Short and Agatha Christie. Kadena had a decent paperback library.

  10. Cedar, I forget how far from Beavercreek/Fairborn you live if I ever knew it, but my brother Kevin is in a writer group IRL that meets at the Wright State library on Tuesdays. (Sometimes me too, but I am usually dead tired or working.) It is a very miscellaneous, small, but nice and hard-working group. They only use Facebook to.confirm who is coming to meetings, so people can make enough copies of print out copies of the pages they are bringing for critique.

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