If you work outside the home, chances are that your job performance gets evaluated in some way. If you supervise other people, chances are you are expected as part of your job to assess the job performance of the people you supervise. It’s not a fun fact of life because assessing what others do isn’t easy. Trust me. It can add stress and tension to a work relationship, especially if one’s job is on the line.
In real life, performance appraisal is a part of most working adults’ lives. Sometimes that assessment comes in the form of official evaluations and sometimes, it’s more informal. And we see both kinds of assessment as threads running through crime fiction novels too. The tension that performance evaluations cause can add a solid layer, even a sub-plot, to a crime fiction novel. And it’s a realistic plot point.
In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we meet Honoria Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank, an exclusive and highly regarded school for girls. As the summer term begins, she’s contemplating her retirement and wrestling with the difficult decision of who will take her place as headmistress. Most people assume that she will choose Eleanor Vansittart, her ‘second in command.’ Miss Vansittart is a logical choice too since she is a capable teacher and she’s made it clear that if she were headmistress, she would continue with the traditions Miss Bulstrode has established. But Miss Bulstrode isn’t entirely comfortable with selecting Miss Vansittart. There’s also Eileen Rich, a young, truly gifted and passionate teacher. Miss Rich has innovative ideas for how a girls’ school might be run, and Miss Bulstrode finds herself drawn to Miss Rich’s passion and her love of teaching. But Miss Rich is young. And then there’s Miss Chadwick, a brilliant mathematician and the school’s co-founder. She knows more about the school than just about anyone else, and is looking forward to serving as headmistress once Miss Bulstrode retires. But the problem is that Miss Chadwick is getting on in years and may not be able to manage the burden. Miss Bulstrode’s dilemma is pushed aside when Grace Springer, the new games mistress, is shot one night in the Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping, and then, another death. When one of the pupils Julia Upjohn begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, she visits Hercule Poirot, whom she’s heard of through a friend of her mother. Poirot agrees to look into the case and returns with Julia to Meadowbank, where he connects the events with a cache of stolen jewels and a revolution in a Middle Eastern state. Throughout this novel, Miss Bulstrode informally appraises the work and the mindsets of each of her top three candidates, and her decision serves not only as a sub-plot, but also as a key motivation behind one of the events in the story.
Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight takes another sort of look at performance reviews. In that novel, LAPD detective Harry Bosch investigates the murder of prominent attorney Howard Elias. Elias was well-known for litigating suits against the LAPD and he was about to do the same again. Michael Harris was arrested and convicted for the rape and murder or twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid. But Harris has claimed that he is innocent and that his confession was, to put it mildly, coerced. Elias had agreed to take Harris’ case and was preparing for the trial when he was killed, so Bosch soon finds himself investigating not just Elias’ murder but also Stacey Kincaid’s. In the process, he reviews the files on the Kincaid case and on Harris’ arrest. This informal performance assessment shows Bosch that there was mishandling of evidence, mistreatment of Harris and other police misconduct. That information leads Bosch to re-open the Kincaid case and in the end, he finds out how that case is related to Elias’ murder.
P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness is the story of the murder of Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, one of the senior staff at Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. The laboratory provides forensic and other tests in cases of un-natural death, so it’s used by both sides in murder cases. One night, Lorrimer is working late on a recently-opened case when he is bludgeoned. Commander Adam Dalgliesh and DI John Massingham are called to the scene and begin their investigation. Hoggatt’s has strict security procedures and there is no evidence of a break-in. So it’s most likely that either the killer is a staff member at the laboratory, or that Lorrimer was well-acquainted with his killer and let that person in. So Dalgliesh and Massingham pay close attention to what they learn both about Lorrimer’s personal life and about his professional relationships with the staff members. It turns out that several of the staff had reasons to heartily dislike the victim. He was unpleasant and arrogant. He wasn’t much nicer in his personal life either, although Dalgliesh does uncover a surprising side to Lorrimer’s character. One of the main suspects in the case is Clifford Bradley, a biologist who’s struggled in his job. He is neither stupid nor lazy, but he is insecure and he lacks confidence. Lorrimer’s rudeness and overbearing demeanour made Bradley’s life miserable and in fact, Lorrimer wrote a very negative performance review for Bradley shortly before his murder. And it turns out that Lorrimer’s got a history of writing brutal performance reviews. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that his poor review makes Bradley a very likely suspect.
In Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, Peter Diamond and his team investigate the murder of Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman, whose body is found in Chew Valley Lake. Although the victim was a famous television actress, Diamond and his assistant John Wigfull believe the murder might have been more personal in nature, so they begin with her husband Professor Greg Jackman. His alibi seems to hold up for the most part, so the team looks elsewhere too. It turns out that Gerry Jackman was involved in drugs use, so there are several candidate suspects among her ‘business associates.’ There are other suspects too, including Dana Didrikson. Didrikson and Greg Jackman had met accidentally and become friends, although they were not lovers. But it comes up that she had a confrontation with Gerry Jackman shortly before her death. What’s more, there’s physical evidence against her. So she’s arrested and held over for trial. At one point, Diamond has a confrontation with Didrikson’s twelve-year-old son Matthew. When Matthew lies about the confrontation, Diamond’s performance in the case is reviewed and he is removed from it. We learn too that he’s already on proverbially thin ice because of a confrontation in an earlier case. Those poor reviews have haunted Diamond and as we see, they play a role in the way the case unfolds.
And then there’s Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. In that novel, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team have re-opened the ten-year-old case of the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. At the time of the murder, everyone suspected his wife Tina of the crime, and she had strong motive; Howe was adulterous and abusive. But the police couldn’t get the evidence they needed to pursue the case against her, so it went ‘cold.’ Now, anonymous notes have suggested that Tina really was guilty. It turns out that Howe worked for the same landscaping company that made the unusual garden attached to the cottage where Oxford historian Daniel Kind lives. He’s curious about its shape, so from his angle, he looks into the case too. While this is going on, Scarlett is also faced with the task of doing up annual appraisals for her staff. Here’s what she thinks of the job:
‘Everyone had to pay lip service to the benefits of performance management but in private, everyone ridiculed the whole process. How could you guarantee a level playing field, consistency and an absence of favouritism and score-settling across the whole county? The whole exercise was a time-consuming waste of energy that everyone except the people who mattered thought would be better devoted to real police work.’
I don’t think anyone believes that the police shouldn’t be held accountable for what they do, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Scarlett’s point of view.
Whether we like them or not, performance appraisals are a part of life for most people who work outside the home. The plot point is realistic and sometimes quite tension-filled, so it fits right in I think with crime fiction. What do you think?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Waronker’s How Am I Doing?