J.D. Frost’s Dollface
With its hilly terrain, historic Civil War battlefields, and well-advertised attractions Rock City and Ruby Falls, Chattanooga has long been a popular tourist attraction in the Southeast. Before the turn of the 20th century it was also a railroad hub and industrial powerhouse. By the 1930s our city became known as the “Dynamo of the South” because its factories and foundries generated a lively industrial economy. That economy eventually waned, but in the 21st century the city’s economy has been revived by investment in new manufacturing and in the country’s fastest
Internet connection. Now known as “Gig City,” Chattanooga has a high-tech vibe that attracts young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs. It has also attracted artists and novelists, among them retired optometrist J.D. Frost. This August Frost released his mystery Dollface, a police procedural that portrays Chattanooga as a young, hip destination city with dark undertones.
Chattanooga police detective Moses Palmer is a divorced father of one driven from the Atlanta police force by his powerful—and vengeful—father-in-law. He attracts unwanted attention from the press and the bad guys, creating such animosity from his superiors that he is constantly in jeopardy of losing his job. He has a keen sense of place, a new partner, and a guilty secret from his childhood—a secret he’d rather not face. Sound familiar? As a Michael Connelly fan, I picked up on the similarities to the Hieronymus Bosch series from the beginning of the novel. It seems that J.D. Frost is also a fan of the scruffy Bosch. Frost attended an optometrist’s convention in Los Angeles, where he saw first-hand the backdrop of his favorite Bosch novel, Angel’s Flight. That visit inspired Frost to recreate himself as a novelist with Dollface.
Palmer has been in Chattanooga only a brief time when a stalker/serial killer begins sending him taunting videos of gruesome murders. Frost does a creditable job of moving the plot along while exploring the animosity that the lead investigator and city officials feel toward Palmer and the negative publicity he seems to have brought the city. Frost also explores the protagonist’s childhood tragedy and his divorce, giving the reader a glimpse into what may come in the next two installments of this planned trilogy of mysteries. And Frost cleverly uses his knowledge of optometry to create a clue that breaks the case for Palmer and his partner.
Frost uses the city and surrounding countryside to define Palmer’s character and further the plot. The stage is almost exclusively set in a limited area of downtown Chattanooga, offering only the briefest of scenes in Red Bank and Hixson. Riverside Drive is a major conduit for Palmer as he searches for the killer. The irony is that Palmer is something of an aquaphobe—
a bad thing for a Chattanoogan, since the Tennessee River dissects the city. Palmer takes circuitous routes to work in order to shield himself from water. As a result we get really detailed descriptions of downtown Chattanooga, East Ridge, Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and even the ever-congested Brainerd Road.
In a sense, the river is a character in the novel. It’s always on Palmer’s mind. Driving down Riverside Drive, he makes note of the current in the river—some days the “the river is flat,” others the river is tumultuous. He looks down from a Lookout Mountain mansion/crime scene to see Moccasin Bend, a recognizable bend in the river. And in the end he cannot avoid becoming immersed in the river as he tracks down the serial killer through the Bluff View Art District and into the water.
Frost has an interesting perspective as a first-time novelist at age 67 and a regular visitor to Chattanooga from his home base in Alabama. He says he is working on the next Moses Palmer novel, the second in a planned trilogy. Let’s hope Palmer has exorcised his water demons and can now cross the river to explore the North Shore and beyond.
In this book Palmer briefly visits his hometown of Summerville, Georgia. In life, Summerville is a picturesque small town set in beautiful rolling hills. It is also home to Hayes State prison, which has recently become notorious for brutal conditions, lax security, and an excessive number of inmate deaths. The prison is within eye shot of a the peculiar, sprawling Paradise Gardens, a ramshackle set of buildings created by the late folk artist Howard Finster. Summerville is the home of an annual folk festival, Finsterfest, each May. Visiting Paradise Gardens is a real treat for those who love folk art. I can’t see Moses Palmer at Finsterfest, but that town would be an interesting backdrop for Palmer’s expert detecting.