Thursday, December 07, 2006

Scott Frost: Never Fear

In 1971, the distinguished English crime writer Colin Watson published a historical survey of crime fiction in England. He called it Snobbery with Violence.

In his first chapter, Watson made the point that, as early as 1851, the Times was complaining about the kind of books to be found on railway bookstalls. 'Every addition to the stock,' said the Times, 'was positively made on the assumption that persons of the better class who constitute the larger portion of railway readers lose their accustomed taste the moment they enter the station.'

In other words, the Times had discovered commercial fiction, and the Times didn't like it.

In 1863, the Quarterly Review went further:
A class of literature has grown up around us... playing no inconsiderable part in moulding the minds and forming the habits and tastes of its generation... Excitement, and excitement alone, seems to be the great end at which they aim... A commercial atmosphere floats around works of this class, redolent of the manufactory and the shop. The public wants novels, and novels must be made -- so many yards of printed stuff, sensation pattern, to be ready at the beginning of the season.
You get the idea. The Times and the Quarterly Review both enjoyed a good game of Ain't It Awful; and so it has continued ever since.

I mention all that because Scott Frost's Never Fear is totally, completely, and absolutely a work of commercial fiction. It is designed, rather cleverly, to provide exactly what a certain class of reader is looking for, and is prepared to pay for.

As such, I rather admire it, though it is not really to my taste. And it's not to my taste because I am not within (what I take to be) its target audience: which is American, female, and young to youngish; and probably mainly urban.

I am by no means surprised to discover that Scott Frost is an experienced television writer, with credits for some Babylon 5 and Twin Peaks scripts. This experience shows in the writing of his novel, which is crisp, told in scenes, with telling dialogue.

Never Fear is related in the first person, set in the present day, and its location is the Pasadena/Los Angeles area. Our heroine is police Lieutenant Alex Delillo (female, despite the androgynous first name). She is a mature woman with a grown-up daughter. There is some family history in the background, referred to briefly, which is presumably set out in detail in volume one of the Delillo series (Run the Risk), but that book is not published in the UK.

Family connections also feature heavily in this book. The plot involves several murders and sexual assaults, with the death of Alex's half-brother early on; a search for Alex's father, who may or may not be a killer and molester of women, occupies much of the story. (We have, almost inevitably, some repressed memories coming to the surface.) There is also a possible cover-up by members of the neighbouring LA police department. Oh, and a love interest, of course.

Everything about this book indicates that it's written by a pro who is well used to tailoring his work to an audience's (perceived) needs. The first book, judging by a comment or two on, was a bit too gory and sadistic for some, and here Frost seems to me to have played down that angle somewhat.

The key question, of course, is whether he, as a man, has been able to create a female lead character who will convince his target readership. Others will judge that better than I, but he seems to me to have had a pretty good stab at it.

The plot gets complicated at times, but again Frost does a good job of guiding the reader through it; I had my private doubts about one aspect of it (whether an actor who changed his name every couple of years could nevertheless work regularly as an actor), but that will probably float by most readers without too much trouble.

All in all, totally professional. Like most such work, just a little bit mechanical, but Frost definitely does his best to give this book a touch of class, and sometimes succeeds.

Should anyone care, the trade paperback edition of this book is nicely typeset, by Avon DataSet Ltd., and printed by our old friends Mackays of Chatham.

Run the Risk, I just noticed, will be published in the UK in August 2007. Such are the mysterious ways of publishers, but maybe there were contractual difficulties.


Anonymous said...

Whether it's Dr. Phil, Danielle Steel or Miami Vice, I've never faulted anyone for openly making a buck. Even on the railway bookstalls.

Jon said...

Has anyone assembled a set of instructions on how to write a modern crime novel, like the ones for fantasy here and those for classic detective stories here? Let me offer a few for starters.

1. Make your protagonist female.
2. Make her sexually frustrated.
3. Have the criminal kill one of her family members.
4. By the fourth or fifth book in the series, when she's running out of family, vary this with the occasional friend or colleague.
5. Make her expose herself to attack in high-risk situations where a real investigator would never go without backup.

I'm sure there are many more. But it sounds like Scott Frost has got them down pat.

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