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JAMES HENRY spills the beans on writing FIRST FROST

Written by Mike Stotter

James Henry is the pen name for James Gurbutt and Henry Sutton (left to right below). James is a publisher at Constable & Robinson, R.D. Wingfield’s original publisher back in the 1980s. Henry Sutton is the author of seven novels written under his own name. He is the book editor at the Daily Mirror and teaches create writing at the UEA. Philip Wingfield, son of the late R. D. Wingfield approves; he remarked, 'The authors have captured my father's style superbly. Fans and newcomers alike will not be disappointed.'  That’s a good sign but how did they go about it? And just like Talking Heads, we set them up and here is the result.


HS - James, you’ve always struck me as someone who doesn’t exactly toe-the-line. A maverick, some people might say, in the best possible way. Is this a fair assumption and indeed is this the perfect background from which to tackle the R D Wingfield mantle? Wingfield was not exactly part of the establishment, was he? 

JG -  I think here you’re referring to the occasional creative deviation from the original First Frost outline we submitted to the publishers. I believe Wingfield did not map out his novels in detail– he went with the flow, which is what I prefer to do. The plots develop as you go, rather than follow a rigid formula; you can very much feel that with his brilliant haphazard original story lines. A bit like Frost himself; meandering all over the place. So there is a similarity there. 

Or put it a very different way, what draws you to the crime genre? You’ve edited Henning Mankell and Gene Kerrigan, among other great international crime writers. How do you rate R D Wingfield? Where, if anywhere, especially now, does he fit?
I really rate the books. I don’t know where he fits exactly – there isn’t anyone quite like Wingfield and for that very reason he has his own unique place. And Frost is English as say, Morse, but in a completely different way and for that reason I think he’ll endure.

Is Wingfield’s greatest claim to fame simply being the creator of DI Jack Frost? Or did his writing exhibit other, highly original facets? All right, I’ll be more specific – what do you make of his completely un-pc humour? Could the charge of misogynist be levelled at him, by proxy (aka Jack Frost) anyway, and how did you address this possible accusation with the First Frost series update?
Both being moral, upright pillar of the community types I think it was a bit of a struggle to begin with but once we restricted Frost’s lascivious impulses to girls just past the age of consent it, it seemed to take care of itself. I don’t think of Frost himself as a misogynist - if anything it perhaps was the police force system that was inherently misogynistic (the female police offices operated separately until relatively recently), or it appears that’s how Wingfield saw it.

Why, if I can be so presumptuous, did you and Henry decide to kick off a new chapter in the detective’s life with a prequel to Wingfield’s oeuvre?
Because Frost is popular – and we like him too.  And to be honest, it was the prospect of working with you Henry.

Odd place Denton. Like anywhere you know? And what’s with those woods? Why do woods always attract strange goings on, and this was before dogging was invented, wasn’t it?
I think Denton was modelled on Basildon, Essex – it’s a new town much like Denton where Wingfield lived, though relocated west; somewhere round Slough or Reading. The woods; when I was a kid the woods were the place you’d take a girlfriend in the summer holidays for a tumble to get out of your parents way – if you saw an adult it was a bit freaky, like what’s he doing here on a week day? This was before conservationists of course, nowadays if you bump into a strange man with a beard he’ll more than likely ask you to move on and not disturb the badgers or try entice you into a bit of coppicing.

First Frost was a collaboration with the highly acclaimed, and decidedly particular, if not anal literary novelist Henry Sutton. What on earth made you go down that route, considering also your own highly acclaimed role as editor to many of the world’s greatest literary writers? Surely you must have had some idea it would frankly be a working nightmare?
Well no I didn’t realise it would be such a nightmare; I think if we both realised how crazy we’d drive each other it would never have happened. The angst and the arguments went for hours, days, sometimes; mobile glued to me walking down the Fulham Palace Road, in the pub, on the train, at the airport; one of the most memorable was the debate about whether Sue Clarke would be wearing a Wonderbra – I remember my seven year old telling me in the bath my dinner had gone cold, as indeed had the bathwater. Something we still disagree on to this day. Still I think it was worth it don’t you? No pain no gain…

What’s easier, editing crime novels or writing them?
Completely different - editing is objective; advising, amending and hopefully improving, and clearly with writing you have to find the words to start with (and then if you’re us argue about whether they are, in fact, the right words for hours on end).

It can’t all have been that bad – what were the key advantages of such an unusual arrangement, with two so diametrically opposed people? How did this, and yes I’ll call it magic, manifest itself in the novel?
The irony is that because we are so different we ended up with what we both think is a good book (we have to say that); and actually all the fighting was because at the end of the day we both cared very much how it turned out. 

That’s enough of us I think. Back to Frost. OK, so your/our Jack Frost is in his late 30s. His marriage is on the rocks. But he doesn’t half fancy fit, young DC Sue Clarke. Will he, won’t he give her one?
It’s always sex with you isn’t it? At least punters can see for themselves where it comes from. I don’t know should he? Would he? Or even could he?

And just remind everyone, of the difference between our/your Jack Frost and Wingfield’s Jack Frost, and indeed the Jack Frost played by David Jason. A minefield of choice and confusion, I’d have thought. How the hell did we get round that one?
I don’t think we considered how he’d turn out (far too busy arguing about important details like whether someone should hang themselves, and if they did where – still think you’re wrong on that) which perhaps is just as well really - he’s neither Wingfield’s or Jason’s, he’s ours which is how it should be.

And what other tricks did we pull, with regard to characterisation, plot, prose, setting and timing? Like, what’s all this about the IRA having a sleeper cell in Denton, of all dreary backwaters? And the much stricter control of POV.
I think we firmly place it 1981, which we had to really; there was a time before mobile phones –so we dropped in a few pointers like Charles and Diana. The IRA is one for you old son?  The plot clips along, I hope. The strict POV, well how long have you got…

OK, it really is over to you now, as new, current sole custodian of the James Henry follow-up. Give us some tasters, and not just whether Frost gets his end away with the lovely DC Sue Clarke. Is Mullett still barking in his face, while Hanlon simply stuffs his? And what about the Coconut Grove, Denton’s one and only strip joint. Do we get to go back there – please?
Mullett is there, though the golf club has shut temporarily, and he’s more irritable than ever.  Hanlon I’m afraid is on compassionate leave though there’s somebody new in his place on secondment, who gets a very mixed reaction.  The Coconut Grove is there, and Harry, though his mind elsewhere. And DC Clarke, well, she is very attractive…



Bantam Press
20th January 2011
RRP £12.99



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