Kit Fielding Mysteries by Dick Francis
The mid-to-late-80s, when Francis wrote the two Kit Fielding books, were when he was experimenting with the family novel, producing gems such as “Hot Money” and “Longshot,” about internal family dynamics and tensions. “Break In” is also a family novel of sorts, although it’s as much about feuds between families as it is feuds within families. The Fieldings have maintained a centuries-long feud with neighboring horse family the Allardyces, until Holly, whose heroine has always been Juliet, marries Bobby Allardyce. Unfortunately, Bobby’s father Maynard isn’t really a peace-and-goodwill kind of person, and Kit finds himself caught in the middle of all kinds of scheming.
“Break In” is marvelously constructed, with Kit’s fights against the bad guys juxtaposed with his races (he’s a professional jockey) and the growing attraction between him and the niece of his chief owner. All kinds of class issues, frequently a topic in Francis’s novels, come up, as Kit negotiates the slightly nebulous class space he occupies–he’s from an old and well-known but not rich family, and as a jockey he’s the “help,” but not in the same category as actual servants. So is it appropriate for him to be courting Mademoiselle de Brescou or not? How should the upper classes relate to him?
The action sequences are, as always, superbly done, although perhaps the best moment is not the action per se but when Kit is recovering from being tasered and suddenly feels life force flooding back into him, which is described with the realism of someone who knows what that’s like.
Although “Break In” is, like all of Francis’s novels, grounded in realism and sharply drawn realist details, it also strays into slightly supernatural territory, as Kit and Holly have an almost, or even actually, telepathic ability to communicate, something that plays a key role in the plot. The slight “supernatural” element is, like everything else, portrayed with a naturalism that makes it completely believable, and only adds to the story. Not necessarily one of Francis’s most hard-hitting novels, but one of his most appealing, making for excellent holiday reading.
“Bolt” is a bit darker than its predecessor “Break In,” dealing as it does with arms trading and the murder of horses. While “Break In,” for all its villainy, was at its core a fairly lighthearted thing, “Bolt” takes the same characters and puts them in danger of losing their actual lives, not just their honor. “Break In” introduced us to the extremely personable Christmas (Kit) Fielding, his sister Holly, and the charming de Brescous, including most especially the lovely Danielle, with whom Kit falls deeply in love, and mixes them up with some people intent on ruining their reputations; “Bolt” brings in actual sordid evil deeds and villains who are willing to kill to get their way.
One of the particularly charming things about both the Kit Fielding books is the way they harken back to old-fashioned, romantic notions of honor, feuds, and aristocracy. They’re set in what is recognizably the mid-1980s, when they were written, but everyone lives a kind of old-fashioned lifestyle, either training horses or being aristocrats, and lives according to old-fashioned principles. While one can criticize the aristocracy for many things, the *idea* of dealing with honor is certainly attractive, and Francis uses that in a way that works while still seeming natural.
The vivid sensory details that Francis uses so well are also deployed in full force here, with everything from the wallpaper of the Princess’s house to the cream that Kit’s rival for Danielle’s affections eats for breakfast described in life-like detail. As a side note, Francis novels always make me extremely hungry, especially for toast; the fact that his jockey characters are always watching their weight makes the descriptions of food especially enticing.
“Bolt” has not just the earthy sensual details one would expect from a Francis novel, though, but is one of the first ones in which he began developing the particular lyricism that would be notable in several of the novels from the late 80s and early 90s, peaking and ending with “To the Hilt” and “Wild Horses,” in which his characters achieved heightened spiritual states through contact with nature. The ending of “Bolt” is bittersweet, ambiguous, and beautiful, the clean natural world of horses finally winning out over the dirty, sordid world of petty human greed and ambition. A must-read for Francis fans, and for anyone who loves horses or wonders why people do.