"Break In" is the 25th Dick Francis novel for its author and the first for me; no doubt there will be many more for both of us. The immensely popular Francis turns out to be, upon belated introduction, a writer of facile, literate mysteries much in the British manner. It is perhaps advisable not to look too deeply into them, for fear of finding little beneath the surface, but that is hardly the point; Francis means to entertain, which he does with skill and style -- precisely what the reader asks for from a writer of mysteries, and precisely what the reader too rarely receives.
As few mystery lovers by now need to be told, Francis is a former jockey who sets his stories in the world of horse racing. It is a small world with an elaborate set of customs and traditions, a world where blue blood mingles but rarely mixes with less exalted strains, where an extraordinarily various human community gathers in common devotion to the improvement of the breed. It is also a world that has inspired an exceptional amount of good writing on both sides of the Atlantic; in the literature of sports only fishing, golf and baseball have produced comparably distinguished fiction and nonfiction.
Francis is a genuine professional whose prose has a smooth, effortless quality to it. Though the plot of "Break In" moves in many directions before arriving at its satisfying conclusion, Francis narrates it straightforwardly, making no attempt to move it off course or to freight it with excessive thematic baggage. "Break In" is "popular," or "commercial," fiction, but let it be noted that it is a pleasure all the same to encounter a storyteller who not merely knows how to tell a story, but does so with intelligence and wit.
About that story, the less said here the better. Suffice it to say that Kit Fielding, the narrator, is a successful steeplechase jockey, "some years champion, some years not, sharing the annual honor with another much like myself, coming out top when one's bones didn't break, bowing to fate when they did." His twin sister Holly is married to Bobby Allardeck, a horse trainer whose family has conducted a long and bitter rivalry with the Fieldings; they are "two families with some land and some money and a bitter mutual persisting hatred," and the marriage is satisfactory to no one except Kit, who is devoted to his sister and has developed a wary liking for Bobby.
So it is to Kit that his sister and brother-in-law turn when their small business is endangered by malicious, inaccurate gossip about Bobby's financial condition that has been spread by a scandal-mongering newspaper, the Daily Flag. As Kit tries to track down the source of the rumors, he is drawn ever deeper into worlds about which he is entirely innocent, worlds occupied by the rich, ruthless and power-mad, people who think nothing of destroying innocent bystanders in the course of accomplishing their own dirty ends. One of these people is Bobby's father, Maynard Allardeck, a ravenous businessman who thirsts for a knighthood; but over the years he has acquired, with ample reason, a number of enemies who are not averse to using Bobby in their sub rosa campaign to deny him the honors he longs for.
It is a nasty business, no question about it, and Francis proves himself a master at nastiness. Maynard Allardeck is hardly the only vile creature in this cast of characters, but one among many, all of them depicted with refreshingly malicious pleasure and drawn, as well they should be, an inch or two larger than life. There are also some decent folk, notably Holly and Bobby but also a number of race track people, ranging from a princess who takes a benign interest in Kit's affairs to the trainers and stableboys who obey, and if necessary enforce, the track's code of honor; these are portrayed with affection, and most are fleshed out to considerably more than cardboard.
Kit himself, it must be said, is rather too fantastic to be wholly believable; he wins all his big races, emerges scarcely bruised from a thunderous fall, beards numerous vicious lions in their dens and generally carries the lance for Truth and Virtue. None of which matters a whit. The reader coming to Francis for the first time will find diversion and pleasure; the veteran Franciscan, I am told by a member of that tribe, will regard "Break In" as "in the top 10 percent" of his work. Fun for all, in other words.