Tuesday, December 21, 2010
FROST AT CHRISTMAS: A DARKLY HUMOROUS MYSTERY DEALING WITH SERIOUS ISSUES
One of my December reads this year is R. D. Wingfield’s Frost at Christmas (Crime Lines). It is not a Christmas novel, but a British police procedural that takes place from December 16th through December 20th, the last official days of fall. The holiday season is in the background, as is snowstorm after snowstorm. I’m glad I read it now.
Its author was always something of a recluse, shunning interviews and the public spotlight. According to Wikipedia, this was his first novel, written at the publisher’s request, yet never published until many years later in Canada.
Wikipedia doesn’t say why the novel was rejected nor does it say how much it was revised before its publication. Wingfield did not write it as the first in a series, but as a stand alone novel in which its protagonist, Jack Frost, would die at the end. I wish I could see it the way he originally wrote it. To say that Frost is not correct politically is to put it mildly.
Inspector Jack Frost is one of the more interesting characters I’ve encountered in fiction this year. There is a short prologue that makes no sense until you get to the end. The author does not introduce Frost into the main narrative until page 50 or so (in a 280 page book), and your first impression of him (if you have not yet read others in the series nor watched the British television show that features the character) is not a good one.
Frost’s true character is revealed slowly, subtly, beautifully. At first he seems just a simple rude, crude, macho, sexist jerk. But the narrative twists and turns in an unexpected way, and then you see him as a rebel against the conformists--a sloppy, vulgar, earthy Dionysius in the midst of an Apollonian police bureaucracy, and you find yourself cheering for him. A bit like Colombo, it seems that while he has little talent for doing things right, he has a knack for doing the right things to solve the case at hand.
But the cases pile up, and more of his character is revealed as it turns out that he is not quite the man you thought he was. Still sympathetic, even more so, but you can see that the man is empty, and engaged in a personal flight from emptiness, a self-destructive flight.
As the novel goes on, it becomes obvious that Frost has undiagnosed attention-deficit syndrome. He cannot concentrate on any one thing for long, but flits around from chore to chore. The paperwork he despises grows like the national debt. More of his character is revealed, and the logic behind his character flaws--that is, the cause and effect--becomes clear. The end of the novel makes sense, but the publishers must have insisted that all of the loose ends be tied up and some of them appear melodramatic and logically flawed.
I can’t say that this is a great novel, but it is one that I certainly enjoyed and one I will not soon forget.