The Fun of Frost
By Philip MordueDecember 31, 2014
SIX BOOKS. That is all the Inspector Frost you can read by R.D. Wingfield (1928–2007). A unique writer, Wingfield managed to blend two disparate genres: serious, sometimes brutal, crime and laugh-out-loud comedy. There are people who would argue that there is plenty of crime fiction containing elements of black comedy; or that elements of comic relief tend to pop up across the genre. This comedy is different, though. It feels positive. While the subject of Frost’s investigations can be as unpleasant as murdered children or serial rapists, Wingfield never resorts to black humor. Instead, in the best tradition of British comedy, he uses self-deprecation, slapstick and even lewd humor to replicate the feeling of keeping spirits up while performing a particularly unpleasant job. This provided a strong human connection to Frost for his readers.
Detective Inspector Jack Frost is an unusual lead character. You may have come across this type of detective before, but never as the protagonist of a story. Frost is a lazy, incompetent, childish, insubordinate, and unkempt old man. Rather than accepting a new case, he’d much rather spend his time leering at a young lady half his age while smoking a stolen cigarette. He’s a stark departure, unmoved by the traditional underlying moral imperative most detectives in crime fiction feel. From classic protagonists like Holmes, through Poirot, Marlowe, and Spade, to the modern detectives — P.D. James’s Inspector Dalgliesh, Colin Dexter’s Morse, Michael Connelly’s Bosch, and the even the latest sleuths like James Oswald’s Inspector McLean and Robert Galbraith’s (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling) Cormoran Strike: they’re all driven to solve the puzzle. Frost is not. He’d like to, but he’d much rather someone else did. This attitude had never been seen before in crime writing and hasn’t been seen since.
Frost’s creator, R.D. Wingfield, was an incredibly private man — so private that you won’t find a picture of him during his novel-writing years. An Italian publisher found a simple solution to this problem; they just used a picture of English comedian and star of the Carry On films, Kenneth Williams, instead. Details on Wingfield’s life are limited. Born in 1928, he was working as a clerk for Fina Oil when he began writing. His first radio play, “Compensating Error,” was produced by the BBC in 1968. In 1970, he quit his job to write radio plays full-time, and in 1972 he was approached by Macmillan’s crime editor with an advance to produce a novel. The first Frost book, Frost at Christmas, was born and then promptly rejected by Macmillan the same year. While Wingfield used Frost again in a series of radio plays, the novel remained unpublished until 1984, when it was released in Canada as a paperback. It didn’t make it to the UK until five years later. Another five Frost novels followed at irregular intervals: A Touch of Frost (1987), Night Frost (1992), Hard Frost (1995), and Winter Frost (1999) all received strong praise. Wingfield focused on his radio plays for much of the time in between, but fans eagerly anticipated each new novel. The final novel, A Killing Frost, was completed just before Wingfield’s death in 2007 and released in 2008.
Originally, Frost at Christmas was written as a stand-alone and Wingfield intended to continue with his true love, writing radio plays. Whatever happened to change his mind about writing novels, we’re all thankful. So the character returned in A Touch of Frost (1987) and bumbled his way through a hunt for a serial rapist before accidentally catching him. This book really demonstrated Wingfield’s storytelling talent — catching a perpetrator almost accidentally while maintaining the realism of the novel is an incredibly difficult balancing act.
Wingfield’s pre-Frost work experience required him to balance comedy and crime. While he had written pure comedy once for the radio play “The Secret Life of Kenneth Williams” (1971), Wingfield spent most of his time writing serious crime pieces for radio. He was known for writing multiple plot lines involving small-time criminals, clever twists and surprise endings, supplying plays that regularly entertained millions of listeners for 20 years. Naturally, he’d developed an exceptional ear for dialogue. In his novels, this ear managed to convey a small piece of crude slapstick in the simplest of lines. The fan of Frost can be found grinning at the mental image summoned up by the line, “How’s that for centre?” — Frost’s standard victory cry for surprising an unaware colleague or friend with a prankish poke to the bottom.
In contrast to the majority of procedurals, where things go pretty well for the protagonists, the Denton division, where Frost works, is subjected to an unflinching implementation of Murphy’s Law. Denton is understaffed, underfunded, lacking talent and besieged on all sides by never-ending waves of crime and paperwork. The exasperated undertones come through loud and clear from the minor characters. Desk Sergeant Bill Wells, epitomizes this with his constant complaints about being on duty all the time, especially at Christmas. Wells reacts with incredulity at his persistent bad luck, telling a flasher who exposes himself in the station lobby to push off: “We’re too bloody busy.” Frost seems to have become used to this sorry state of affairs, stating time and again how he’ll find a way to “sod things up.” This self-deprecating humor offsets the vulgar, sometimes offensive edge to Frost’s own jokes. Combining these traits is probably the reason why readers find the character so likable, and why they root for him to succeed. While a reader may grin and cringe when Frost tells “that one about the cowboy who drank the spittoon” again, they’ll also feel sorry when he confesses, “I’ve made a right balls up.” It feels both fun and human at the same time. Wingfield combines self-deprecation and comedy to fuel the reader’s natural empathy for a protagonist. It seems simple when you look at it objectively, but it’s difficult to avoid getting sucked in by it. It also makes it very easy to thrust the book into the hands of friends and encourage them to read it.
During the 1980s and 1990s, when Frost originally came to fore, no other police procedural writers were addressing departmental politics in their books. Jump forward to today and the internal politics, in-fighting between colleagues, and competitive careers are all part of the familiar background to modern crime fiction. Wingfield was ahead of the curve, or perhaps he set the trend and the modern crime writer saw the problems Frost was dealing with and incorporated them into contemporary works.
Frost was nothing like the more cerebral sleuths of the time. Anybody who didn’t like detectives writing poetry like P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh, or going into detail about classical music and opera like Colin Dexter’s Morse, finally had an alternative in the form of the uncouth Frost. The series had something to appeal to everyone: serious murder case puzzles to solve, jokey banter between colleagues, the adversarial relationship with the boss, in-fighting and political power plays within the police department, childish pranks, and finally the empathy and warmth between characters affected by the crime. Even a little romantic subplot isn’t free from Frost’s ability to sod everything up — he forgets to show up to multiple dates. (Do we laugh or cry at this?) Thus Frost had universal appeal regardless of how much or how little crime fiction the audience reads.
The rebellious aspects of Frost stealing his boss’s cigarettes or forging his petrol expenses show Wingfield’s originality in taking traits which would normally be negative and providing a devilish spin to them. The wider appeal of this is seen clearly in Frost’s interactions with Superintendent Mullet. Every hard worker will have come across a boss who takes credit for other people’s successes and lays blame for all failures elsewhere. It’s easy to see the appeal of a fictional world where our hero responds to this type of person with a two-finger salute. Blowing a wet raspberry at a boss like that is equally delicious. Readers relate to and empathize with Frost’s daily grind, which is why people tend to fall into two categories: those who love Frost and those who have not yet read Frost.
The television series starring David Jason came to British screens in 1992 with its iconic theme music and saxophone solo. In contrast to the books, Frost appears in the TV series as a much more serious and talented detective, with just a dash of unruly behavior — it’s easy to see why Wingfield commented that “He just isn’t my Frost.” The success of the television series, however, was a great sales boon for the books. More and more people were being exposed for the first time to the unique written version of the detective.
Six books. That’s all you get. The cult of Frost will likely continue well after this essay —that’s what cults do — but maybe this will just add a few more members. Thanks predominantly to the success of the television series, Frost has become a household name. Despite this, it’s surprising how many people have not read the novels. It’s even more surprising when you account for the fans who enthuse away to anyone who’ll listen about how much better the books are than the small screen series. Instead of pushing the books into the hands of my friends and ordering them to read (already done), the online landscape provides a new opportunity to thrust the books into the virtual hands of anybody who’ll listen. If you’ve made it this far, maybe you’ll think about picking one up to see what the fuss is about.
Philip Mordue is an author of hardboiled crime fiction. He occasionally blogs on his website PhilipMordue.com about crime fiction and literature and his debut novel The Writing’s on the Wall was published in 2014.
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