Series: Kit Fielding #1
Published by G. P. Putnam's Sons on January 4, 2005 (first published September 24, 1985)
Genres: British mystery, Mystery
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Also by this author: Nerve, Straight
Jockey Kit Fielding has been riding the de Brescou horses in a succession of triumphs on the race course. But this winning streak is about to end. Kit’s twin sister, Holly, has come to him in desperation. Threatened by financial scandal, she and her husband may lose their training stables. Kit soon finds, though, that a greater danger lurks behind the threat - one that could be fatal.
Break In is one of my favorite Dick Francis mysteries, and in my opinion, one of his best. It was written mid-career, before age and his wife’s death led to a slight decline in his work, if not his ability.* Taut suspense, perceptive characterization, a dash of romance, and the author’s signature style and racing milieu combine to make Break In essential reading for any Dick Francis fan.
Steeplechase jockey Kit Fielding is at the peak of his career when his twin sister Holly begs for his help. Her husband Bobby Allerdeck has been targeted by a newspaper gossip column in an apparent attempt to ruin him financially. As Kit turns detective and digs deeper into who is going after Bobby and why, the scope and the true target of the campaign slowly emerge. The stakes ratchet up, as do the lengths to which the opposition will go, putting Kit in real danger.
Francis has a gift for writing vivid, compelling scenes in economic, down-to-earth prose, and for giving non-lethal situations the same intensity and sense of danger as in a murder mystery or thriller. (Some of his mysteries do involve a death, but almost as many do not.) He employs both gifts to great effect in Break In. As with most of Francis’s mysteries, the story takes place within the British racing world. Kit’s understated, polite friendship with the middle-aged princess whose horses he rides; his attraction to the princess’s American niece, Danielle; his closeness to his twin; his complex relationship with her husband Bobby, tainted by the antagonism inculcated into both of them from the cradle due to a centuries-long feud; Kit’s unspoken affection for the aging trainer for whom he rides; and above all, his love for racing… all of these give context and depth to both Kit’s character and the mystery as a whole. But the story hinges on Kit’s practical, clearheaded, and fiercely determined defense of Holly and Bobby. He has a hard head and a backbone of steel, and his opponents have no idea what sort of man they are up against. The reader does, however, because the novel is written in first person, from Kit’s POV.
The secondary characters are similarly well-rounded, though to a lesser extent because we aren’t able to share their thoughts. But Holly, Bobby, the princess, Danielle, and Wykeham (the trainer) do come alive on the page, as seen through Kit’s perceptions. So do the villains, or opponents (not always the same thing.) They are likewise complex, or at least nuanced. Although Francis never condones or minimizes the wrongs committed by various individuals, he portrays most of them as human beings in Kit’s eyes (and therefore ours), neither wholly bad nor wholly good… though usually leaning toward one or the other to some degree. The one exception is almost certainly both obsessed and a sociopath, and even in that case, the motivations are believable.
A well-plotted mystery-thriller with a touch of romance and an intelligent, honorable hero, Break In keeps me turning the pages even on the fourth or fifth reread.
*Francis’s wife, though never credited, collaborated on the books from the beginning. She carried out much of the research, made suggestions regarding plot and characterization, and edited the manuscripts. After Mary’s death in 2000, their son Felix, who had sometimes assisted her, stepped into that role, but may also have taken on more of the actual writing as his father’s health declined. He received credit as co-author for the four books published between after 2000. The only one of the four that I have ever reread is Dead Heat; the others felt flat to me, the prose not as vividly alive as in the earlier works.