First Frost, By James Henry

A warm welcome back, Jack
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The Independent Culture

Is this a recipe for success? Take one long-established literary copper (such as R D Wingfield's misanthropic D S Frost), in cold storage since the death of his creator, and hand him to two younger writers to reinvigorate. Two writers, what's more, who clearly haven't got much sympathy for the miserable old bugger.

Somebody at Bantam deserves a pat on the back for the notion, however, as – against all the odds – the success of First Frost is incontestable. This is a palpable hit, and proves that there is plenty of life in the terminally un-PC Jack Frost. That may or may not be good news for writers James Gurbutt and Henry Sutton (aka "James Henry"), obliged to continue chronicling Frost's investigations. And there are precedents for not liking one's characters: the best film featuring Mickey Spillane's thick-ear detective Mike Hammer, Kiss Me Deadly, is a dark surrealistic gem made by a director (Robert Aldrich) who loathed the brutal gumshoe. And First Frost has already received an imprimatur from actor David Jason, who incarnated the character on TV for so many years (and softened the rough-tongued copper into someone more lovable).

One of the many clever touches here is the strategy of taking the reader back to the detective's early years. In recession-hit 1981 Britain, as the IRA plans its mainland campaign, workaholic Detective Sergeant Jack Frost (even at this age not noted for sartorial elegance or liberal opinions) is already an irritant for his superior, Superintendent Mullet. The alcoholic head of the CID has disappeared, but his booze-fuelled absences are habitual; a second disappearance, of second-in-command DI Allen, is perhaps more significant. Frost has his hands full with the chaotic state of the vermin-infested police station, missing colleagues and a 12-year-old girl abducted from a department store.

To those who study the entrails, it's no surprise that First Frost is so bitterly diverting. Gurbutt is a publisher who works for the late Wingfield's original publishing house, and Sutton, literary editor of the Daily Mirror, has written several acerbically entertaining novels under his own name. The duo's effortless command of the idiom here is sui generis, but perhaps their dislike of the protagonist, once described as "the most unattractive cop in mainstream crime fiction", has been the sand in the oyster that has produced this dark but glittering pearl.