15 July 2008

Dick Francis. Dead Cert, 1962.

Dick Francis. DEAD CERT. Michael Joseph, London, 1962.

Current Selling Prices $6000 - $8000 /£3000-£4000

Dick Francis is the Queen Mother's jockey who became a horse racing journalist and then a bestselling thriller writer. Dead Cert is his first book and not one of his best, some might say it's the least good of a generally pretty distinguished bunch. It is his most valuable book because it his first novel and has become quite elusive. It is a book that can be found and does not look valuable to the layman. One dealer makes the claim 'one of the scarcest books of the last 60 years...' It would not be hard to name about 100 scarcer titles from this period without leaving the field of mod firsts--Theroux's 'Mount Holly', Middleton's 'Holiday', Larkin's 'XX Poems', Pratchett's 'Colour of Magic', Maclaren Ross 'My Name is Love', Le Carré 'Call for the Dead' Ballard 'I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan...' and so on. The old confusion of value and rarity--even "Lion, Witch and Wardrobe' is both more elusive and more valuable. I have never had a smart jacketed 'Witch' but have had at least 3 'Dead Certs.'

Francis has an enviable fanbase. It is not uncommon to see his books next to Beckett & Joyce --he is considered light reading for the highbrow, also his books will turn up with a lot of sporting books, or country books or amongst lowbrow airport novels. He is asked for all the time--all of his later books are fantastically common and signatures abound. Here is a plot summary of 'Dead Cert:-
'For millionaire jockey Alan York, winning is a bonus. For Joe Nantwich, victory means no cushy backhanders; and for Bill Davidson, front running on strongly fancied Admiral, triumph is an imposter. It means murder - his own. Turning private detective, York uses Joe's underworld connections to go on the trail of the killers - only to draw a series of blanks. But when ambushed by a gang of vicious thugs, he picks up some clues along with his cuts and bruises. Bill's murder begings to make more sense. Until York finds himself in hospital, without a memory.'
This isn't the cosy world of Poirot and Marple, there is often some pretty nasty violence, people get injured physically and mentally and there is as good an assortment of villainous psychopaths and sociopaths as you'd meet any afternoon at Haydock Park. The books are also well researched without shoving the work in your face as a lesser writer like Ian Mcewan might do (I'm thinking of the surgery in 'Saturday'.) The research was done by his wife and partner Mary Margaret Brenchley who sadly died in 2000.

VALUE? Admittedly it is hard to find a spiffing copy of the book. An indifferent but not price-clipped example described as an 'honest copy' sits on the web right now at £4500. The highest auction record is £2600 + 20% commission at Bloomsbury in 2004 for a copy described as '...in d/j with minor rubbing & fraying & soiling.' About 6 copies have breasted £2000, all with minor faults. Fine copies are not forthcoming and could be found with the publisher, printer or agent or possibly among the collection of a reviewer who never got round to reading it. This year a copy described thus '...offset marks from sellotape on half-title, original boards, dust-jacket, small light strips of tape on inside flaps, minor fraying to spine ends and corners, some very light marking, otherwise very good' made £2850. In 2004 a slightly better copy made £3050.

Francis is known to have presented the first copy of each book to the Queen Mother, often in the royal box at Ascot--even with the parlous state of Royal finances these are not going to turn up for a while. One imagines them on a forgotten shelf in a lady in waiting's under chamber at Clarence House next to the Cecil Beatons, the Beverly Nichols and the Norman Hartnells. At this month's auction of the QM's top servant William Tallon (aka 'Backstairs Billy') the only book he possessed of hers was a reprint 'Mapp and Lucia' with her ownership signature - it made £300. Dick's second presentee was a Dr. Dixey who lived and practised in a neighbouring village to him and verified the medical content in his thrillers. His collection, in less than brilliant nick, failed to sell at Bloomsbury against a reserve of £4000 - £6000.

OUTLOOK? The 'honest' copy is still there, inexplicably £250 more expensive (this entry was first posted 9 months back.) A better copy has come in at £4950. There used to be an old maxim amongst dealers that if something didn't sell that you should put the price up. I guess the idea was that the higher price conferred greater kudos on the book. In the age of the net and the ability to compare prices at a stroke this doesn't really work unless you have something unique or maddeningly desirable. Dick Francis may be leveling off, his tales of the turf possibly a little vieux jeu in the age of forensic and techno crime.

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