Tragedy and loss have been the basis of many great thrillers. Greed, jealousy, and murder have sparked many great mysteries. At the intersection of murder mystery and suspenseful thriller you’ll find GUILTY NOT GUILTY by bestselling author Felix Francis.
In this one, Bill Russell is a volunteer racecourse steward and the story is set against the background of the horse-racing world. Russell’s life is turned inside-out when his beloved wife is killed. What’s worse is Russell is accused of killing her. It’s downhill from there. Despite the lack of real evidence, the media mercilessly hounds him. He loses his job. His friends turn against him. His world begins to crumble.
Bill Russell is a likeable character who believes in right and wrong and understands the inherent injustice found in the behavior some people show. But, as Francis tells us, he’s not really a hero.
“He does not go out of the way to be heroic; he simply responds to difficult circumstances in which he finds himself. He is a mourning husband, and his life begins to unravel around him. But he is strong in mind and shows determination to do what he considers as necessary to survive. The first-person narrative I use allows me to include much of his thinking and to embrace the emotions he feels over the death of his wife.”
And Russell is not a detective. He doesn’t so much pursue the real murderer as try to prove that it wasn’t him, Francis explains.
“Only when the police seem determined not to look elsewhere is he forced into exposing the real culprit to exonerate himself. He thinks he knows who is responsible all along, but the proof is elusive. I would say he’s more of an ‘observation and deduction’ person and a reluctant detective, preferring not to have any confrontations, whilst always watching and listening.”
Francis sets his novels in the horse-racing world, following in the footsteps of his bestseller father, Dick Francis. People have told him that they don’t read his books because they’re all about horses, but Francis disagrees.
“My books are about people,” he says. “Horse racing is simply the canvas against which I paint the story. I suppose that horse racing has become my trademark, as it was for my father, and my readers expect it, although GUILTY NOT GUILTY has less racing in it than any of my other books. Horse racing, however, is an activity that provides such contrasts of life. It is the pastime of both royalty and the man in the street. Gambling and the movement of large amounts of cash will always mean there are those trying to tip the odds in their favor, by fair means or foul. In my view, it’s simply the perfect business for storytelling and suspense, and that is what I’m trying to provide in my work.”
So racing is just part of the setting, like the location. Francis generally sets his books in England since he’s familiar with that country—a good example of “write what you know.”
“In GUILTY NOT GUILTY, the action is largely set around the area where I live,” Francis says. “It made the research easier and quicker. But I suppose it could transfer to anywhere in England.”
Still, the court scenes are specific to England and Wales because of their laws. Even Scotland and Northern Ireland have different judicial systems. And Francis knows there is nothing more annoying for a reader than when an author gets things wrong—it detracts from the story. So he tries very hard to get everything correct.
“During the writing of GUILTY NOT GUILTY, I went to a black-tie dinner and found myself sitting next to a lady barrister,” Francis says. “I explained that I was writing a book with a court case in it. She rolled her eyes and claimed that every author gets it wrong. So, I sent her the manuscript and asked her to put me right, and she did. She also said that she was impressed that I had it almost all right anyway. That proves that my days spent in court watching real trials were worth it. And it is also the best free theater in town.”
In the end, Francis had two barristers (legal advocates) and several other lawyers read the book before it went to print to check the legal accuracy. But he found that it’s difficult to get lawyers to agree on anything anyway.
While Felix Francis is successful, one might wonder if he’s working in the shadow of his father. After all, GUILTY NOT GUILTY has “A Dick Francis Novel” printed across the bottom of the front cover, as all Felix’s books have had.
“When anyone asks me what I do for a living, I always reply that I write the ‘Dick Francis’ novels. But I don’t feel that I’m in his shadow any more than I think he’s in mine,” he says. “I’m extremely proud of what my father achieved. I was just eight years old when Dead Cert, the first Dick Francis thriller, was published, and I grew up in what I consider to be the greatest thriller factory of the 20th century. I helped with his writing for 30 years, designing the bomb that blew up an aircraft in Rat Race when I was a 17-year-old physics student. I also acted as his editor-of-first-read before his manuscripts were sent to the publisher. On his retirement, it was obvious that I transition to writing them myself. I like to think that my books are slightly more modern than his with, perhaps, a bit more humor in them. But I hope they’re as exciting and thrilling—who wouldn’t?”
Some well-meaning people have suggested that the “Dick Francis Novel” tag should be removed, but it’s Felix’s choice to leave it. Next year, 2020, would have been Dick Francis’s 100th birthday, and there are plans for a fitting celebration of a man we all know as one of the great thriller writers of modern times. What will that celebration entail? Well, that’s a mystery for another time.
Meantime, we can immerse ourselves in a novel that carries the fun and the feel of that man’s legacy, GUILTY NOT GUILTY.
Felix Francis is a New York Times bestselling author of horse-racing thrillers. He is the younger son of legendary thriller writer Dick Francis, and, since 2006, Felix has taken over the writing of the ‘Dick Francis’ franchise. GUILTY NOT GUILTY is Felix’s 14th novel.
Felix’s previous occupations included teaching advanced level physics in England as well as being deputy chairman of a worldwide expedition and leadership-training company based in London.
For a while in the 1990s he also ran a real estate business in Houston, Texas. He is now a full-time writer and he and his wife, Debbie, live in a 400-year-old manor house in rural England with their two Irish setters—who are the ones really in charge!
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.