If you work outside the home, chances are that you have co-workers. Since you can’t always choose co-workers, it’s a very lucky thing when you have friendly co-workers you can depend on. On the other hand co-workers can also turn out to be the bane of one’s existence. Either way, they often have a valuable perspective so when there is a murder, detectives usually talk to the victim’s co-workers. The way someone’s perceived at work can give a lot of insight into that person’s personality, habits and even state of mind. So it makes a lot of sense that co-workers’ views and behaviour play a role in crime fiction too.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot re-opens the investigation in to the death of a charwoman. Everyone is convinced that she was killed by her lodger James Bentley but Superintendent Spence, who did the original investigation, has begun to suspect that Bentley might be innocent. So he asks Poirot to look into the case. One of the first things Poirot does as a part of this investigation is to talk to Bentley’s co-workers at Breather & Scuttle, the realtor’s office where he’d been employed before he was let go. From Bentley’s former boss Poirot learns that Bentley wasn’t unpleasant, but he simply didn’t produce enough results to keep his job. This makes Poirot wonder whether Bentley would have had the faith in himself and audacity to carry off a murder. Then one of Bentley’s co-workers Maude Williams give Poirot surprising insights into the kind of person Bentley is. This is also extremely helpful in giving Poirot perspective on the man. In the end in fact Williams proves to be useful in solving the case.
In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, copywriter Victor Dean has a fatal fall down a staircase at work. His employer, Pym’s Publicity Ltd. is an advertising agency that counts among its clients some top companies and the management of Pym’s wants to keep things that way so discretion and respectability are very important. Dean left behind an unfinished letter in which he claimed that someone in the firm has been using the company’s resources for illegal purposes. That letter raises the possibility that Dean was murdered. Instead of calling the police in (which might bring unwelcome attention to this utterly respectable place), Pym’s hires Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at the company and find out whether Dean’s allegations are correct. Wimsey does so and in the course of his investigation, he gets to know Dean’s co-workers. From them he gets a perspective on the victim. He also finds out that Dean was right about the company’s resources. Someone who works at Pym’s has been using the company’s advertising to arrange meetings between a drugs ring and local drugs dealers. Dean found out who that person is and was taking advantage of that through blackmail. Because he’s undercover as Dean’s replacement, Wimsey gets to hear some very interesting unguarded remarks and conversations as he goes about finding out the truth about Dean’s death and catching the person responsible for it.
Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man is the story of former academic Harry Steadman, who used an inheritance to move with his wife Emma to Yorkshire to indulge his passion for excavating the Roman ruins in the area. When Steadman is found murdered, DI Alan Banks and his team investigate. Before he and his wife moved to Yorkshire, Steadman was a member of the faculty at Leeds University, so Banks travels there and gets to know some of Steadman’s former co-workers. They provide some interesting insights into Steadman, his reputation and his character. They also give Banks an important clue as to Steadman’s killer.
In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect; they had been known to quarrel and what’s more, he was very drunk on the night of the murder and doesn’t remember much of anything. So although he claims he is innocent, he really can’t provide an account of himself nor any other plausible suspects. In fact, he’s convicted of the murder and remanded to a mental institution since he cannot remember what happened. When Mitter himself is killed Van Veeteren knows for certain that Mitter was telling the truth. He and his team begin to dig more deeply into both victims’ pasts to find out who the killer is. And part of that is a set of interviews with co-workers at the school where both taught and where they met. After all, people at the school knew them both and could have had a motive for murder. From those interviews, Van Veeteren gets an interesting perspective on both people; he also gets an interesting clue about who the killer is.
In Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, Sydney police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the death of Paul Fowler. At first it seems that Fowler collapsed, possibly due to the heat, during a casual football game with a few friends. But when it’s found that he was shot, Marconi and her team begin to look into the death more carefully. The team learns that Fowler had been managing a carpet franchise called Carpet Planet until a few weeks before his death. So one of the avenues they explore is his reputation at work and his reasons for either quitting or being fired. Marconi and her police partner Murray Shakespeare interview Fowler’s employees as well as the franchise owner and discover that something had happened a few months before his death that changed Fowler’s disposition and that shortly after that, he’d left abruptly. Although no-one at work really knows what happened, that’s enough for the team to dig a little deeper. As it turns out, Fowler had taken a decision that got him into deeper trouble than he ever could have imagined and ended up costing him his life.
Co-workers turn out to be crucial to finding out who killed TV celebrity Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson in Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder. Verity Long is the assistant to well-known mystery novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Usually she does research for fictional murders but she gets involved in a real one when she goes house-hunting and discovers Johnson’s body in a supposedly empty prospective home. Long falls under some suspicion since she’s the one who found the body. But even after she’s cleared, she continues to ask questions. One of the first places she goes for answers is the television studio where Johnson worked. There, she learns that Johnson was hardly the beloved-by-all personality she appeared to be. Little by little, Long follows up on the leads she gets at the studio and finds out more about Johnson’s personal life. It turns out that what Long learns from Johnson’s co-workers is instrumental in solving the case.
It’s surprising how much co-workers know about each other. For detectives, co-worker interviews can be a proverbial gold mine when it comes to learning about a victim. And for a writer, there’s lots of potential for personality conflicts and character development. Kind of makes you think about your work-mates in a different way doesn’t it? ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blur’s Yuko and Hiro.