Just about everyone has a boss. And bosses can run the gamut from helpful and supportive (I’m very fortunate to have one of those types of bosses at the moment) to truly horrible and toxic (speaking only for myself, I’ve certainly had that kind of boss, too). Our relationships with our bosses can be key to whether we can work productively or not, and they’re some of the most important relationships in our professional lives. So it’s little wonder that we see a lot of bosses of all kinds in crime fiction. After all, cops have bosses, too. And even lots of amateur detectives have bosses in their own professions.
It’s a little tricky to write a fictional boss. On one hand, it can be interesting and add a solid layer of tension to a story if a sleuth and his or her boss either don’t get along well or if they simply disagree about things. On the other, it’s very easy to slip into the clichéd character of The Horrible Boss and The Misunderstood Sleuth. Boss/sleuth relationships can also pull the reader out of the story if they’re not realistic. For instance there are some examples in crime fiction of bosses and subordinates who begin a relationship. Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James come to my mind. So do Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and (for a time) Gill Templar. But that’s got to be done very carefully. In real life there are a lot of issues with bosses and subordinates getting involved. Whatever kind of boss a sleuth has, that character can add to a story if she or he is well drawn.
Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp may have a high rank at Scotland Yard, but he has bosses, too. In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), for instance, he’s called in to investigate the shooting death of a dentist, Henry Morley, in Morley’s own surgery. One of Morley’s patients is powerful banker Alistair Blunt, and Japp’s been assigned to this case because it’s possible that Blunt was somehow the intended victim of this murder. Hercule Poirot is another of Morley’s patients, so he gets involved in the investigation. Shortly after Morley’s murder, another of his patients disappears, and another dies of what looks like an accidental overdose of anaesthesia. Then, abruptly, Japp’s bosses pull him off the case. It turns out that the case may involve members of the British Intelligence, and it’s considered “classified.” This bothers Japp no end, of course, because he wants to solve the murders. So he asks Poirot to find out the truth, and Poirot agrees. It’s interesting here to see how even a “higher-up” such as Japp has to answer to bosses.
There’s a fascinating boss/subordinate relationship in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. Wolfe virtually never leaves his New York brownstone home. So when he needs information or evidence, or needs to learn what witnesses have to say, he sends private investigator Archie Goodwin to do the “legwork” for him. On one hand, Wolfe is rather an exacting boss, and he’s not exactly known to pay a lot of compliments. In Fer de Lance, for instance, he sends Goodwin out on mission to get a witness statement; one of his instructions to Goodwin is,
“returning here, bring with you any articles that seem to you unimportant.”
He’s particular about his schedule and demanding. And yet, he’s brilliant. Moreover (and this is what makes this relationship so interesting) he knows that Goodwin is a skilled sleuth in his own right, and that he depends on Goodwin. It really is in its way a symbiosis.
So is the relationship between Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later Inspector) Peter Pascoe. Dalziel is brilliant and often sees “the big picture” better than Pascoe does, at least at first. He’s rude and inconsiderate (and that includes his treatment of Pascoe) and he is difficult to please. And yet, he depends on Pascoe and underneath it all, Pascoe knows that Dalziel respects him and as this relationship develops, we see how much that respect means to Pascoe. That doesn’t stop him from getting completely angry with his boss from time to time. He may recognise Dalziel’s superior rank, but that doesn’t stop Pascoe from also seeing that Dalziel is a very fallible human being.
The unenviable task of supervising Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse falls to Superintendent Strange. We don’t learn an awful lot about Strange through most of this series, but we do see that he’s got a lot to manage. Not only is he expected to be sure his team works well and solves crimes, but also, he’s got to make his team “look good” for the media. There are also the politics of police work, and Strange has to keep that in mind, too. Not so Morse. He doesn’t care much for politics, and he couldn’t care less whether people think it’s odd or inappropriate that he prefers his local to his office. His purpose is to solve crimes. The rest doesn’t matter. It’s interesting in this series how Strange tries to help Morse see the larger picture, so to speak, and be little more politically adept, while Morse tries to remind Strange of why they’re all there in the first place. It’s no easier to be Morse’s subordinate than it is to be his boss. Just ask Sergeant Lewis. His relationship with Morse is interesting because it’s complex. Morse isn’t always right; Lewis isn’t always wrong. They depend on each other and over the years, they also become friends.
Helene Tursten’s Sven Andersson doesn’t really become friends with the members of his team. He knows that he can’t, because he has to supervise them. And yet, he respects each of them. In his own way, he cares about them. He can be difficult to work for in some ways. For instance, he’s just getting used to the idea of women in the police ranks. He admits to himself that he’s got sexist and outmoded ideas. But changing them is a challenge. So is managing the occasional disagreements within the ranks, so to speak. He’s also got to manage the media, his own bosses, and of course, the cases the team works. So he can be short-tempered and demanding. And yet, he shows compassion, too. It matters to him if someone on his team is ill, has a personal crisis or in some other way is in need. He does everything he can, too, to protect his team from unfair criticism and of course, from danger. And he listens to his team members, even when he knows he’ll have to “pull rank.” He’s an interesting boss because he’s realistic. And his team is loyal to him because he is loyal to them.
Martin Edwards’ Lauren Self is far from the ideal boss, at least in DCI Hannah Scarlett’s opinion. She’s egocentric, demanding, at times rude, and not particularly caring about her people. She tells her own bosses and the members of the media what they want to hear and curries favour with them, and she’s in many ways difficult. But Edwards also gives us glimpses of some of the stresses that she’s under, and that makes her a bit more human. Lauren Self’s a high-ranking woman in what’s still very much a man’s world. She has to supervise a group of independent-minded people, some of whom have served in the force for quite some time. She doesn’t have good personnel management skills, so she’s got plenty of dissent to cope with as well. You could very successfully argue that Lauren Self has been her own worst enemy. But at the same time, Edwards doesn’t paint her as thoroughly evil.
And that ‘s the thing about well-written bosses. They’re not always evil or uncaring. At the same time, they are bosses. They have to take difficult decisions and they often see the broader picture when their subordinates don’t. Which crime fictional bosses do you find interesting?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s The Authority Song.