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Second outing for Sergeant Frost
on 17 May 2012
The character of Inspector 'Jack' Frost was created by the successful radio dramatist R D (Rodney) Wingfield, who died in 2007. The first Frost novel - 'Frost at Christmas' - was written in the early 1970s, but was rejected by the commissioning publisher. It was eventually published in Canada in 1984, but didn't appear in Britain until 1989. Five more novels followed: A Touch of Frost (produced as a radio play in 1987 and published as a novel in 1990), Night Frost (1992), Hard Frost (1995), Winter Frost (1999) and A Killing Frost (published posthumously in 2008). David Jason was an early fan of the novels and was largely responsible for bringing Frost to television in 1992, as a vehicle for his move towards more serious and dramatic roles in his illustrious acting career.
'What's all this got to do with the new novel?' I hear you quite reasonably ask. Well, quite a bit, actually, so please bear with me for another paragraph. To appeal to a primetime TV audience, Frost's character was softened considerably. The TV Frost was not the Frost of the books, though both were excellent in their way. Wingfield's Frost had a gritty realism, and the books reflected the dark and macabre humour which provides a safety valve from the stresses of what can often be a deeply unpleasant job. Wingfield claimed to have watched only one episode of 'A Touch of Frost', saying that while he had nothing against David Jason as an actor 'he just isn't my Frost'. And that's the point - there are two significantly different Frosts, and the Frost of the books is a substantially darker and more complex character.
After Wingfield's death in 2007, the executors of his estate commissioned James Gurbutt and Henry Sutton (hence the nom-de-plume 'James Henry') to produce a further Frost novel, and this appeared as 'First Frost' in 2011. Wisely, this didn't simply follow on from Wingfield's last novel; it was a prequel, set in 1981, when Frost was a Sergeant and Superintendent Mullet was just settling in to his new post at Denton. It was, in my view, a five-star crime novel, capturing Wingfield's style of writing with almost uncanny accuracy, and fully matching the bleak and gritty standard of Wingfield's own novels.
'Fatal Frost' is a second prequel, set in the early summer of 1982. Denton is chronically understaffed, and is struggling to cope with a spate of burglaries and to pacify the affronted residents of a block of flats overlooking the rear of Denton's newly-opened massage parlour. An elderly local walking his dog in Denton Woods discovers the body of a 15-year-girl near the foot of a railway embankment, and before the investigation into this death is properly under way, the body of another 15-year-old is found on a green at Denton's newly extended golf club, during the re-opening celebrations attended (of course!) by Superintendent Mullet. This time, however, the body is naked, male, missing several of its organs and arranged in a form suggesting a pentagram. Once again, the writing (this time by James Gurbutt alone) is pure Wingfield; the dark humour crackles and in the usual Frost style the strands of the various enquiries intersect and overlap without appearing to reveal any discernible pattern.
THe novel has all of the classic ingredients of the series, and is a rollocking good read, well worth the extremely low price asked by Amazon at the time of publication. But .... in restrospect, it wasn't completely satisfying. Having thought about my reaction for a couple of days, I've come to the conclusion that the plotting isn't quite up to scratch. This isn't a spoiler - the solution is as well obscured by red herrings as you would expect - but when you reach the end you're left wondering why anyone would commit a premeditated murder in circumstances which generate such an extremely high risk of discovery. Perhaps you won't agree, but even if you do I don't think you'll regret your purchase. I feel guilty for offering only four stars, but that's the way I feel - though it doesn't stop me from eagerly awaiting the next book in the series!