Dick Francis returns to his winning combination

Break In, by Dick Francis. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0-399-13121-3. 317 pp. $17.95. After a series of novels featuring such non-equine subjects as banking and kidnapping, horse racing again takes center stage in Dick Francis's latest novel. A former jockey, Mr. Francis knows about horses and horse racing; with 24 novels in print, he also knows how to write suspenseful page-turners. When the two are combined, as they are in ``Break In,'' the result -- at least for this reviewer -- is pure pleasure.

``Break In'' contains all the ingredients of the Francis formula: a well-written, fast-moving narrative; an attractive, likeable hero; and authentic racing scenes and background. The hero is Kit Fielding, a champion steeplechase jockey who rides for several owners, including a European princess in exile. When his twin sister and her husband, who train horses, find their business threatened by nasty rumors printed in a racing scandal sheet, Kit comes to the rescue. He battles some particularly ruthless villains, wins several races, learns a little about the news business, and falls in love with the princess's niece, a London bureau coordinator for an American television network.

As always, there is suspense about who the villains are, what they'll do next, and how the hero will turn the tables on them. And turn them he does, because justice, in a Dick Francis novel, always prevails in the end.

The Francis hero, whether he is a jockey, a photographer, or a banker, is a man with principles who is willing, though never eager, to fight for them. Something of a loner, he is a modern man who lives by an old-fashioned code of honor. He's intelligent, dependable, polite, and brave. He combines pragmatism with romanticism, tenderness with toughness. He's a man who treats women as people, not as objects.

The presence of this man of principle in a sport that, in spite of its traditions and strict code of conduct, can be plagued by dishonesty and immorality creates a tension that is the basis of Francis's plots. The villains break the rules; the hero upholds them. This reassuring restoration of order in a chaotic world -- a hallmark of good crime fiction -- is not unique to Francis, however. What is unique is his contagious enthusiasm for the sport of horse racing. Francis stresses its athleticism, sportsmanship, excitement, and beauty, thus making it transcend the ugliness that tries to spoil it.

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