Was a time, years ago, when my holy trinity in literary fiction comprised of Roger Zelazny, Louis L'Amour, and Dick Francis. It sucks a lot that all three of them are gone. And, as much as I enthusiastically follow today's crop of writers, when I absolutely need a fix, those three above are still my go-to guys.
Just about everything Dick Francis wrote was gold. Who else can make me care about horseracing? No one else. Crazy thing is, DF was such a good storyteller he made me interested in the otherwise dull jobs he sometimes saddled his heroes with. Examples? STRAIGHT (hero was a jockey who takes over his brother's jewelry firm); PROOF (wine merchant); BANKER (merchant banker); RISK (accountant); DRIVING FORCE (horse transport company owner).
Just about all his books are my favorites. But my favorites of favorites are NERVE, ENQUIRY, RAT RACE, HIGH STAKES, THE DANGER, HOT MONEY, THE EDGE, STRAIGHT, DECIDER, and TO THE HILT. And BREAK IN and its sequel, BOLT.
And as great as BREAK IN was, I thought BOLT was even better. Champion steeplechase jockey Kit Fielding stares down danger and rights wrongs in both books. Kit is tied with Rob Finn and Tor Kelsey as my all-time favorite DF hero. And why do I like BOLT better? Maybe because it dives into a fascinating relationship that I dearly wanted to be explored further in BREAK IN. Yep, it sucks some that Kit's twin sister, Holly, isn't at all in BOLT. But I found myself not missing her all that much.
It's been about a year since what went down in BREAK IN, and things haven't been as cherry as it'd been. Kit's engagement with the lovely Danielle has hit a rough patch,and we don't find out the why of it until deep into the book. But maybe it's that dashing prince with whom she'd been keeping company?
But a distant fiancée may be the least of his problems. Princess Casilia, whose horses Kit had been riding for ten years, suddenly requires a different sort of champion. Her invalid husband, Roland de Brescou, has fallen prey to a very hostile business takeover. Now, that may seem a blah sort of jeopardy. Except, in DF's hands, the perpetrator comes off as a credible threat, one of those bruising, menacing forces of natures that habitually rides roughshod over his victims. The princess and her husband, both of 'em Old World souls who cling to the old-fashioned principles of civility, decorum and honor, are ill-equipped to deal with this big bad's bullying.
Personally, I appreciated the bullying. Because of what it leads to. Which is the normally reserved princess' hesitantly asking for Kit's help. Turns out, she'd been made aware of how Kit had flummoxed a pair of nasty press barons a year ago. So, this is the relationship I'd wanted developed further. Kit's and the princess'. And that's the gem I went away with from this book, that I got to know her better. Princess Casilia is awesome.
Maybe some plot spoilers.
BOLT is a much darker read than BREAK IN. In BREAK IN, it's someone's honor and reputation that were at stake. In BOLT, the baddie is actively trying to off people. The book title refers to a pistol-like device intended to humanely put horses down. Here, it's used to murder horses, specifically the princess' champion horses. It's just one more way to demonstrate how serious the baddie is in getting the princess' husband to cave and sign a contract that would permit his company to manufacture plastic firearms, a business trajectory this honorable man finds utterly detestable.
What the princess asks, mutely, is that Kit handles things with a certain delicacy - ie: no scandal please. What I like about Kit is pretty much what I like about all of DF's protagonists. He's super-personable, is unassuming, has hidden reserves, a dry wit, is a thinking man's hero. But I was surprised that BOLT barely touched on Kit's vaunted telepathy, which was so much made of in BREAK IN. As ever, DF tosses in a memorable lot when it comes to supporting characters. I appreciated that Prince Litsi, rival to Danielle's affections, isn't villainized. Fact is, Litsi is a stand-up guy and Kit can't help but respect and even like the guy. And I loved Sammy, the inimitable 20-year-old bodyguard. Not so lovable is Danielle's shrill Aunt Beatrice on whose actions all sorts of destinies would turn. I enjoyed tremendously the various rounds of Kit and Beatrice's caustic verbal exchanges.
Also, as ever, DF writes in polite clashes among England's low, middle, and high classes. He's comfy spinning scenes and tossing in understated social commentary involving the dregs and the swells that make up the strata of society. Kit embodies this self-assuredness. He's at home either hobnobbing with toffs or bribing a lowly wastrel. It's fascinating, the delicate social balance Kit maintains in his conduct with the princess and her husband and, come to think of it, with Prince Litsi, who's still a decent hombre, so I can't really give him the side eye, darn it.
It's a paradox in that BOLT is both a character study and a study in manners and, at times, a white knuckle ride. Kit isn't one to get violent and throw punches. His way of getting even, of delivering swift justice, is more cerebral and probably more insidious because the baddie don't quite see it coming. And, oh damn, I haven't even mentioned Maynard Allardeck, now a racing steward, who still harbors hate towards Kit because, y'know, ancient family feuds die hard. But why is Maynard suddenly ramping up the hate? Go on now, read the book.