Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Day 76: Murder in the bookshop

“A writer must have enough money to never be afraid of walking into a bookshop”, so said Paul Schrader, he who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, to name just a couple of extraordinary films. What he meant by this, was that any writer, worth their salt, is a lover of books and that the bookshop is like the candy store to us. If I have no money, best not to go in sad is that?

It’s well documented here that my budget has been beyond tight of late and who knows when a break in the fiscal weather is a-comin’? Recently, I’d just finished reading Australian crime writer, Peter Temple’s, Duncan Lawrie Dagger Winner, The Broken Shore, and was on the hunt for a new piece of crime literature to get started on. However, with limited funds, I found those dreaded words of Paul Schrader’s reverberating in my ears as I headed out to my two favourite Sydney bookshops: Ariel and Berkelouw. The good news was this: if I kept the ship really tight that week, I worked out that I could allocate myself ten dollars, which meant, probably, that it would have to be a second hand tome from Berkelouw. But, thanks to the good people at Penguin, and their collection of $9.95 reprints, I was able to “go new”!

Buying a book is one of life’s most wonderful experiences (sorry if that’s not the case for you) and I returned home from Ariel, happy with my purchase of John Mortimer’s Rumple and the Penge Bungalow Murders. I’d read most of the Rumpole series back in the 80’s and 90’s and remembered that throughout the retelling of court tales, by London’s most irascible barrister, Horace Rumpole would oft drift, wistfully into the mists of time as to recalled one of his earliest
cases, this most celebrated one: the Penge bungalow murders.

Great, here I was, ready to plough into more reading in the name of mastering the convention in which I’m writing my script - crime - but, with a little anxiety. My apprehension took this form: the Rumpole books are as much comedic as they are dramatic, whilst in my screenplay, there is little in the way of comic business. But, here’s the lesson: it’s important for me to let go where I think the goodies will come from and keep an open mind, because I was not six pages into this witty and highly enjoyable, popular literary excursion, when I was reminded of a great crime/detective story convention and was reaching for my notepad.

Day #76 Tip: Protagonists need tough and gritty forces of personal conflict
The following quote is Horace Rumpole, talking about both his past and current Head of Chambers (his boss) at Equity Court (the law firm he works for):

“...the niceties and formalities of life in the law were to him more precious than justice...”

The moment that I read this, a bell of familiarity rang in my head, reminding me of a timehonoured character that often appears in crime stories, to thwart the investigative-protagonist, a veritable source of conflict, his boss: the editor who stymies the journalist with a probing mind (State of Play, Zodiac), the mayor who doesn’t want a gung-ho police detective running amok (Dirty Harry, Magnum Force), the Internal Affairs agent who watches every move of the cop on disciplinary probation (Basic Instinct). Sometimes it’s his partner/buddy, in the guise of the ‘cop who does things by the book’ vs our more ‘improvisational’ protagonist (Insomnia, Mississippi Burning), other times it’s the District Attorney who won’t/can’t bring about a prosecution, blaming the detective for his questionable methods (Dirty Harry) or it’s the cop’s corrup boss (Witness, LA Confidential)

This character who presents personal conflict for our protagonist is the staple diet of most British TV detectives: Inspector Morse, Jack Frost, and Wexford. Whilst the detective is out trying to solve the crime, to bring the perpetrator to justice, there’s always his superior: the Police Commisioner or Chief Superintendant, with pips on his shoulder, who is always going to any obsequious lengths not to step on the toes of politicians, influential community members, wealthy business magnatesand the like. And those lengths nearly always include the scene where he drags our detective in off the street to haul him over the coals about some insignificant breach of policing protocol, often threatening to take our man off the case.

Not only does this cause conflict at the personal level for our protagonist, but it maddens him and us because it jeopardises the very value that’s at stake in the story: justice, and the pursuit of. The source of the personal conflict, the authority figure always has self-seeking objectives in mind that he or she pursues at the expense of justice (the objective of our protagonist).

The seminal 1970’s movie Dirty Harry comes to mind. In this first film in the series featuring Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callaghan, (Dirty) Harry is on the trail of serial killer Scorpio (this is a story loosely born our of the Zodiac killings in San Francisco, only just recently depicted in the film, Zodiac). Scorpio is a psycho path, terrorising the city, relentless in his killing. The Mayor’s office is all-too willing to pay him off, give in to his demands and the police chiefs are willing to go along with this. Only Harry (Callaghan) can see that no bag of money is going to buy this psychopath off and it eventually takes a vigilante Harry to restore justice to the world.
But in restoring justice “Harry’s way”, arguably a fascist way, justice is compromised again by the cop taking the law into his own hands.

This “way” was very popular in films of the early 70’s (the Harry Callaghan trilogy and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish), a story-type born out of the Western, not a genre we see so much of these days. Perhaps it was refelecting a climate in America, post-Watergate, when the general public needed “heroes” to enforce the law, when the law-makers weren’t?

Such Personal Conflict is surely a bed for breeding Inner Conflict.....tomorrow.

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