As cop shows go, Line of Duty (Tuesdays BBC2) strikes me as a cut above the average. No surprise when I realised the writer is Jed Mercurio, (remember the almost fly-on-wall style Bodies? – how could I forget!) Although in LoD there’s none of the jerky camera thing, the casting is really great, the characters are have a realistic complexity and just a couple of scenarios have generated more than enough plot for five episodes (fourth was last night). But why is it then, that each time I watch, I find it hard to remember what went before, and find myself paying close attention to that ‘previously’ sequence which usually has me shouting at the telly (I know what happened last time just get on with it!) Yes, the plot is getting increasingly complex, but I think what makes it harder to follow is that there is no obvious hero, or, conversely, there is more than one.
We began with the DCI Tony Gates being given an award as ‘Officer of the Year’. He’s a loyal family man, adored by his colleagues and absolutely oozes charisma. But someone thinks he has cooked the books to make his and the force’s record better than it is. On his tail is quiet hard-working DS Arnott from the anti-corruption squad. He has had a raw deal arising from a previous botched raid, he has that lean and angst-ridden look and is treated as a pariah because of the job he does. Soon it emerges that golden boy Gates has plenty to hide. We’re on Arnott’s side in the fight to unmask him. But damn it, we are still drawn to Gates, his cute children and all too human failings. We’re not sure how much we want Arnott to win. Then there are the top brass: both men have bosses hell-bent on their political and personal agendas. How much have they congributed to the whole mess? There’s also a memorable performance from Neil Morrisey as Gates’ amiable best mate. He has a gammy leg and a chip on his shoulder. Just how far will his loyalty be pushed?
It’s hard in this to sort out black from white, goodies from baddies, and I guess this is Mercurio’s point. All these people believe themselves to be doing their jobs, all of them, if asked, would claim the higher ground. But all of them are working to targets and walking tight-ropes of one kind or another. Mercurio describes the show as “a revisionist commentary on 21st century policing”. So no, it’s nothing like Z Cars.
In this case the no-hero show is a good thing and makes a point of its own. But it made me realise I’m a lot less comfortable with this in my reading. Yes, there are some memorable novels that deal with the fortunes of a group. I mean, there’s The Group for starters and Playing with Cotton Clouds which I reviewed recently, is a very different example of the same thing. But I’ve also struggled a couple of times recently where there are several points of view and, as far as I can see, no main contender for our affections. I’m fine with ‘two-hander’ stories where we look at a relationship between two people in detail, or in the context of history or a long-running family saga where you expect to hear from different points of view. But every now and then I’m in the middle of a contemporary novel and want to say, excuse me, whose story is this exactly?
It’s not just a question of POV (e.g. in most crime novels the detective is the hero but we still need to know what the other side is up to!) but I think beginning writers do sometimes flit around more than is necessary. But the main thing is the reader’s sympathy. If we are rooting for one person (or one relationship?), the momentum is clear, and we are a lot more likely to stay interested.
How do others feel? Do you like a ‘one-person’ story, or prefer to share the plot around?