Painter, sailor, musician, eye doctor and writer of short stories — J.D. Frost has followed several callings in his life.
Now, at age 67, the optometrist is reinventing himself again, this time as a mystery writer. His first novel, "Dollface" (Ardent Press, $15.95, 243 pages), will be released in two weeks. The murder-mystery will be of special interest to Chattanoogans because it's set here.
Frost, currently a resident of Arab, Ala., lived in Fort Payne during the mid-1990s. He and his wife made two to three weekly trips up Interstate 59 to the Chattanooga health club they had joined.
"We drove to the city, exercised and ate. Sounds insane now, but then gasoline was selling for less than $2 per gallon," he explains.
Through these visits, Frost says he became fascinated by Chattanooga's diverse landscape -- and the Tennessee River later inspired the central conflict in "Dollface."
"Dollface" is the first in a planned trilogy featuring Detective Moses Palmer. After an ugly dismissal from the Atlanta Police Department, as well as from his now-ex-wife, Palmer has joined the major crimes division of the Chattanooga Police Department. He's carrying a lot of baggage from both break-ups, along with self-imposed guilt held onto since his brother's drowning during their childhood. The detective attracts the attention of a narcissistic serial killer, who sends him video clues to his next victim. Chattanooga, a city reliant on tourism dollars, is in the news for all the wrong reasons, and city officials are screaming for Palmer's replacement on the case.
Frost tells readers up front who the murderer is; the suspense lies in how quickly the detective can piece clues together in his race against the clock to save the next victim. Frost namechecks Germantown Road, Brainerd Road, Amnicola Highway, Walnut Street Bridge, a Hixson pub, WDEF Channel 12 TV, the old Diamonds and Lace night club, even the Bluff View Art District, where Palmer is forced to face his fear of the water.
"The central conflict of 'Dollface' is Moses Palmer's guilt over the drowning of his brother. You can't avoid the river in Chattanooga, it's everywhere. Once I saw the conflict, the story came to me," he says.
Steve Gierhart, Ardent Press editor, calls Frost "is a very evocative writer."
"He paints his characters so well," Gierhart says. "What I loved was the psychological background for his character -- the issue of how his brother's drowning has stayed with him his whole life. The way J.D. handles it brings you into the character, you feel for him."
Frost says that, although he toyed with the idea for "Dollface" for several years, it was an optometrists' conference in Los Angeles that spurred him to action. Having just finished Michael Connelly's "Angel's Flight," he realized the book's crime scene was the short railway in downtown LA just seven blocks away.
"I sneaked out of the meeting and found the setting. A little further over, I saw the LA Times building where Mr. Connelly worked as a crime reporter. I envisioned him making that walk during lunch and plotting the book. Comparing the actual Angel's Flight railway to the one he spun in the novel was an eye opener. It showed me that writing is much more than just rote description and a few imaginary events."
He chose Moses for his character's name for its obvious Biblical connection to the baby left in the bulrushes, and picked Palmer because in Latin it means "pilgrim," a reference to the detective's move from Atlanta. To add authenticity to his fictional squad room, he interviewed a Chattanooga Police Department public relations officer and also had an ex-policeman critique the police operations he'd written in the first few chapters.
Frost is already at work on the second installment. Although the criminal in "Dollface" doesn't return, many of the other characters will, he says.
"Writing this new book is a lot of fun for me. Unfortunately, my hero, Moses Palmer, is not enjoying it," Frost jokes. "But he is strong and I feel he will find a way out of the impossible predicament I have put him in."
"Dollface" can be purchased at Amazon.com.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...