ROGER SIMPSON wrote the screen plays for the popular Australian TV series ‘Halifax f.p.’ When asked to write a series of three books featuring the main character, forensic psychiatrist Dr Jane Halifax, he said he found the moment terrifying.
KAREN WILLIAMS investigates.
Roger Simpson is an incredibly successful writer and producer for TV. His shows include ‘Stingers’, ‘Good Guys, Bad Guys’ and ‘Satisfaction’ to name but a few.And of course millions of Australian viewers had their eyes glued to the screen to watch his Channel 9 TV series ‘Halifax f.p.’ and ‘Halifax: Resurrection’ which feature Dr Jane Halifax, a highly skilled forensic psychiatrist, played by Rebecca Gibney.
After nearly four decades of constant pressure to write and produce TV programs, Roger Simpson said it was irresistible when he was approached about a year ago to write a book based on the TV series.
‘I never had the time or the confidence to write a novel and I jumped at the opportunity,’ he said. ‘TV is such a voracious animal. It keeps eating all your time. If there was one truism I learnt over the years (in TV) it’s that one day a show will be cancelled so you need to be ready.’
Although Roger is a talented and seasoned writer who has won umpteen awards, he says the experience of writing his first book was terrifying.
‘I found myself very exposed. From years of working collaboratively, suddenly I was solo. Just me and the reader. My relationship with the publisher and editors, was critical. I listened and learnt a lot too from the readers’ reports.
Transgression opens with the sadistic murder of one of Melbourne’s leading billionaires and philanthropists. Inspector Eric Ringer, the head of Victorian homicide, knows he has to act fast to catch the killer. That means bringing in the best forensic psychiatrist available to profile the perpetrator. It’s late Friday night but he calls Dr Halifax. The thought of working together is appealing to Jane; she and Ringer have had a bit of romantic history. As she puts the phone down and heads out the door, she wonders whether the chemistry they once shared will be re-ignited.
As the crimes escalate and the pressure to catch the killer intensifies, some tenuous links begin to emerge.
As more horrendous killings take place, suddenly the field is opened up to a whole range of scenarios and possibilities that involve medieval torture, the Catholic Church and former priests’ abusive behaviour. There are disgruntled business partners and many extra-marital affairs in play. Are the police dealing with a sadistic psychopath who is potentially a serial killer or is there a copycat murderer now in the act?
Before she can profile any killer, Jane always begins her investigation delving into the background of the victim. As the crimes escalate and the pressure to catch the killer intensifies, some tenuous links begin to emerge.
There is Ela Bey, a woman who formed a seven-year relationship via correspondence with a violent criminal who is now out on parole. Jane’s instinct also tells her there is more to the wife of the first victim than what the wife has told police.
Transgression is tightly scripted with a host characters, some of whom have the motive and opportunity to commit the murders. Roger uses these to drive the suspense and keep you reading – and guessing. He tells me crime novels can’t just be about the narrative.
‘They serve a higher purpose. In Transgression I’ve tried to put even the most heinous crimes in some context and not simplify the good and the bad. No matter how horrific the crime, Jane is never judgemental of criminals. During the investigation she tells Inspector Ringer that “we are all on the spectrum”. Only by understanding the criminal mind can we hope to do something about their behaviour, she tells Ringer. Like the victims, the perpetrator can also be in terrible pain.’
Roger hopes that readers will identify with Jane who is always questioning and seeking to find the humanity among the worst of human nature. ‘Forgive us our transgressions,’ Jane says to Ringer at one poignant moment in the novel, ‘for all of us are weak.’
Roger doesn’t shy away from violence and graphic depictions of how the victims die in Transgression. He believes that as a writer he has an obligation to the reader.
‘You can’t go into the realm of crime and violence without meeting it head on,’ he said. ‘Otherwise you are sanitising it. The exception is I never make my victims women. I am squeamish about that and don’t like reading novels where women are the victims.’
Studying law at university and working for a brief period as a barrister in Melbourne, has given Roger a good understanding of how the legal world operates. Since the early ’80s when he started working at Crawford Productions, Roger has been immersed in the world of police and crime. That gave him the knowledge to write authentic, gripping and AWGIE-award-winning ( he has won 12!) plots and characters. In Transgression you can’t help but be immersed in these characters’ lives and to be attracted to many of them.
An example is Showbag, the old-fashioned cop whose quips and humour are uplifting. He is the last of the old-style cops who is led by his instincts and working out in the community.
‘I used to go out with the St Kilda police. We used to sit in the back of the van and get right into the milieu of it. I’ve been around policemen and writing crime for many years and over that time, I learnt a lot about police and their world. I have a lot of respect for them and their dedication to the job,’ he says.
After 25 years of writing about Jane, Roger says that the character keeps surprising him. When I asked him where she came from, or who was his inspiration, he said that he was influenced by, and grew up with, three enormously strong women. Jane is largely the result. Importantly, he is still listening to them, drawing on their strengths, and channelling them as he writes.
‘The deeper you dig, the more you find out about Jane,’ he concludes. Transgression left me impatient for the next adventure. It seems Simpson had no reason to be terrified. He has traversed the world of writing for small screen to books effortlessly.