Thursday, July 24, 2008

Behind the heroes

As Dick Francis freely admits, there’s a little bit of himself in all his main characters, from veteran jockey Sid Halley to rising star English chef Max Moreton. That each Dick Francis hero tends to get roughed up a lot has not only to do with the fact that he is a tenacious crime buster who runs afoul of bad guys. But also because Francis himself has had more than his share bruises and broken ribs from his days as a premier steeplechase jockey. He knows of what he writes.

Another signature feature of a Dick Francis mystery is getting behind the scenes of different professional worlds. “People seem to enjoy my books,” he once told Select Editions, “because they learn something about a trade they know little or nothing about.” This was famously true of Banker (1983), one of his most popular novels. It was true of Twice Shy (1982), which featured a British schoolmaster and expert marksman and was directly patterned on Dead Heat co-author/son Felix Francis.

It is also at work in Dead Heat, which takes readers into the heat of the kitchen of chef Max Moreton. This understated, self-made stoic hero can claim three inspirations. It has a soupcon of its two co-authors, surely, but also more than a dash of Gordon Ramsay, England’s most famous chef. A popular favorite in the UK (with a growing following in America), Ramsay is sui-generis, like Max Moreton. Unlike the understaded Moreton, though, Ramsay embraces celebrity with gusto. A vibrant, self-made cuisine celebrity who has a handful of his own establishments (including the renowned three-Michelin-star London restaurant, Gordon Ramsay), a reality TV show, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, (one of my favorites), he is famous for his spicy, direct way of talking that is mercifully unpretentious in a profession that is all too often forbiddingly the opposite.


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