Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Killing Frost - R.D Wingfield

It is said that the first impression is the best one, and it was the same with 'A killing Frost' the first novel I read of R.D Wingfield (but which is sadly the last in the series). The first time I met detective inspector 'Frost' in the novel was when Frost was fudging his expense accounts!!. I was hooked on to the character right then. Imagine your main cop protagonist cooking up his accounts rather than being haunted by the crimes of the world. 

Frost, a widower is juggling multiple cases at a time there seems to be sudden spike in crime in Denton. Meanwhile he is also facing attempts by his superiors who want to drive him away from Denton and so are pressurizing him to take a transfer. From a purely crime point of view, the novel isn't too great. It does not have a well constructed plot, too many things are happening which can become convoluted, some issues too easily resolved. Twice in the novel Frost breaks into a suspects house in search of evidence, finds it, gets out without anyone noticing him, gets a warrant and does the rest. 

But you know what, in spite of all that I had a ball reading this book which is one of the zaniest crime fiction I have read in recent times. The book does not thrive so much on a plot as it does on the writing and the characters. And what a writing it is too, the height of gallows humor. (It is surprising to know that Wingfield didn't want to write novels, but preferred to write radio plays) Now, gallows humor is used in a lot of crime fiction, but Wingfield seems to have been the high priest of it. (You can see the influence of Wingfield on Stuart Mcbride's writing especially in the black humor part and in the main characters, Frost/Logan). Mind you, it can have the reverse effect too, putting you off the novel as one could feel that it borders on insensitivity in dealing with crime. However, what has to be kept in mind is that the cops are not heartless brutes, but they use this kind of humor as one way of maintaining their sanity amid all the brutality they have to see everyday.

Frost himself is a refreshingly different cross between a character in a 'slacker' novel and the world weary cynical detectives of Scandinavian crime fiction. He is not addicted to his work, tries to get out of his overloaded tasks, but somehow finds himself sucked into it again and again. It's not as if he doesn't want to work at all, but just that he craves some amount of normalcy in his life, like to sleep at least 4-5 hours per day which itself is not possible as the cases pile up. However once he is gets started on his job, he generally gives his full to it. His way of dealing with his superiors who keep haranguing him is to 
"Always agree: that was his motto. You could always say you didn't understand afterwards".

Along with the above logic, he cheerfully lies to his superiors (Skinner/Mullet) without batting an eyelid, overrides their harebrained schemes to implement his own at ground level and is generally a pest to them. His superiors cannot figure him out. He is a bit like the court jester about whom the king is not sure whether the jester is agreeing with him or actually mocking him. And he does sometimes get the results too, so Skinner/Mullet are not able to do much about him. It is a very thin line that Frost walks,  just enough that he irritates them, but not too much that they take drastic measures. For e.g. in a crazy moment he abuses Skinner 
"And good morning to you too, you fat sod" (and showing him the finger to boot)
who is unnecessarily rude to him first thing in the morning and nearly does get caught. And the time when he says
"Comprende, signora"  to Skinner, who is not sure whether Frost knows the meaning of the word and hence has to let it go. But alas, there is a slip up by Frost which gives them the leverage they need over him. 

It is not just all fun in the novel though. Frost for all his outward boorishness does have a kernel of kindness, honesty and fair play. Even the fudging of accounts is his way of getting back at the system which doesn't pay anything for the policemen who put in innumerable hours of over time. He is also protective of Kate a new recruit, who is put through very unreasonable tasks by Skinner because he has a beef with Kate's father. Since it's the only book I have read in this series, I do not know much of the back story, but there are glimpses of Frost's early life, his marriage and the dreams he had then, the way in which they slowly petered out to nothing. All these give a gravitas to the novel. Whether it be the irreverent humor at one end or the more emotional moments, none of them seem forced or put on, they just flow naturally. There is a general tendency to look at humor some kind of escapism, but the fact remains that humor can also be a powerful tool to convey something of importance, without diluting the core of the matter. 

And the core and the choicest part in the novel is how the bureaucracy and the officials in it are portrayed and deservedly so.  These are people who do not want to get their hands dirty, do not want to take any decisions that may backfire later, but at the same time are the first to grab the limelight if things go right. And to top that they are abusive towards their sub-ordinates, bullying and humiliating them. But the other personnel too get their own back at them at times or at least get their satisfaction by using the choicest abuses in their mind. When Skinner first comes to Denton he is asked by the driver who has come to pick up whether he is indeed Skinner, which is a normal enough question. What happens next is

'Who the hell do you think I am? snarled Skinner.
A big, fat, pig-headed bastard, thought Jordan, but he kept the idea to himself. 'You could be someone who thought this was a taxi and just climbed in sir. It has happened before, so I always like to check who my passenger is."

The mental retort of Jordan is damn funny and so is the manner in which he replies to Skinner, which confuses Skinner as to whether his leg is being pulled. But more than that doesn't it give a snapshot of how superiors generally deal with their sub-ordinates, treating them as scum. And what can the people like Jordan do, other than to abuse silently and to find whatever ways he can to get his own back. (I was reminded of Joseph's Heller's 'Catch-22' and 'Something Happened', both of which have their own share of bureaucratic insanity).

As I said earlier, the crime in the novel is not important. A separate series could have been spun out having the life of the cops in Denton as the focal point and with Wingfield's writing it would have been great too. (kind of like the 'Police Academy' series, the difference being the novels would be set in police departments themselves). I didn't want this novel to end at all and so I did a re-read immediately and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time.  Highly recommended if you can swallow large doses of irrelevant humor and are on the look out for crime fiction of a different kind. As for me, I am already on the lookout for the other novels in this series.

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