02/15/2010 12:00AM

Author Dick Francis dead at 89


Dick Francis, a best-selling British mystery writer who was a former champion steeplechase jockey, died on Sunday at his home in the Cayman Islands, according to numerous reports. Francis was 89 and died of natural causes, according to a statement issued by his family.

Although a champion jockey in 1953-54, Francis was best known for the writing career he took up after retiring from the saddle in 1957. Francis wrote 42 novels, most of them set in the racing world. His books were awarded the prestigious Edgar Allen Poe Award in 1968, 1979, and 1995, and he was made a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, who was a fan of his books and had once employed Francis to ride her Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National. Devon Loch was leading the race 50 yards from the finish when the horse inexplicably jumped and landed spread-eagled on the ground, and failed to finish.

Richard Francis was born on Oct. 31, 1920, in Tenby, South Wales. His father was a horse breeder. After serving in World War II in the Royal Air Force, he returned to his father's stables and later took a job as an assistant trainer of steeplechase horses. He began riding in 1948.

His first book, published in 1957, was an autobiography, "The Sport of Queens." His first novel, "Dead Cert," a racing mystery, was published in 1962. At the time the books were wrriten, Francis was working as a racing correspondent for several British publications.

Although many racing aficionados enjoyed Francis's books for their accurate portrayal of life in the insular racing world, his books drew readers from all walks of life. His books frequently appeared on best seller lists, especially in Great Britain, and were translated into 20 languages. The Crime Writers' Association made him a Grand Master for his "outstanding contributions" to the genre in 1996.

Several of his books were also adapted for a popular British television series, "Mystery!" The adaptations, in the 1980s, were credited for introducing his books to a wide audience.

His last two books were co-written with his son Felix. Their final collaboration, "Crossfire," is scheduled to appear later this year.

"It is an honor to continue his remarkable legacy through the new novels," Felix Francis said in a statement released by the family.

Francis is also survived by another son, Merrick. His wife of 53 years, Mary, died in 2000. Mary was credited by her husband for being a driving force behind his novels, and Francis did not write a book after her death until 2006. He had previously released a book almost every year.