And These Are the People I Work With*

Co-workersIf 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Håkan Nesser, Katherine Howell, Lynda Wilcox, Peter Robinson

20 responses to “And These Are the People I Work With*

  1. Another interesting topic. All of my workplaces (admittedly not too many because I worked one place over 25 years) were so innocuous, I cannot imagine anything leading to murder.

    You have mentioned one of my favorite mysteries ever: Murder Must Advertise. I also read the Peter Robinson book fairly recently and enjoyed it quite a bit. And Mind’s Eye is on my to read soon list.

    • Tracy – Thanks – I’ve been lucky to to work with some nice people too. And I’d agree – I couldn’t imagine any of the people I work with getting mixed up in a murder either as the perpetrator or the victim. And yet, you read about these horrible workplace murders. It makes me wonder sometimes…
      I hope you’ll like Mind’s Eye. I always like to start a series at the beginning if I can and I think that’s where the Van Veeteren series begins. And as for Murder Must Advertise – well, I can see why you like it so much. It is a great novel. I do like Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks series. I think the early ones are a little better than the later ones but that may be just my bias.

  2. Another vote for Murder Must Advertise here – I love the office scenes in the book, and always have, they had that authentic feel to them. The conversations, the hierarchies, the rivalries…. all that is the same in all offices I think, though we’ll hope not the murder!

    • Moira – I couldn’t agree more. And Sayers does that cleverly in having Wimsey go undercover. He gets to see it all unguarded. I think that office setting really resonates with readers for that reason. But like you, I hope the murder part doesn’t!

  3. Margot: In A Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny the victim is a monk in a cloistered community, Thus, the co-workers also lived with the deceased. In such circumstances, there is an even stronger personal connection between the victim and co-workers. While I have criticisms of how Penny handled the religious aspects of the story she provided an excellent portrayal of the relationships within the closed community of monks.

    Now a complainant is not always a victim if the case involves a non-murder situation. Kimberly Martin, in Trial of Passion by William Deverell, asserts she has been raped. Interviews with fellow law students (I will assert a form of co-workers) provide information useful to determining whether she is a victim.

    • Bill – I’m glad that you mentioned The Beautiful Mystery. Not only do I really admire Penny’s work but also, the premise – of a group of monks in a cloistered community – reminds me of several other novels and series in which that particular co-worker relationship is explored. It’s really fascinating o explore the network of relationships that develop in a cloistered community.
      And about Trial of Passion, I couldn’t agree more that cohort fellows, whether they’re law students, medical students or other kinds of graduate students like that, are indeed co-workers. I certainly felt that way about the graduate students who were in my cohort. And there’s just as much potential there for finding out information about an investigation. There’s just as much potential for the sort of conflict that can add to a story, too.

  4. I can easily see coworkers getting on each others’ nerves! The last time I worked in an office was circa 1996, but I remember all the infighting and the backstabbing. It was a bank office. 🙂 You’d think it would have been very civilized, but no….

    • Elizabeth – Whenever people have to work together, there’s at least a certain risk of conflict, even in a bank. So I can imagine there was plenty of infighting, backstabbing, and so on. I always think those relationships are interesting to explore for a crime novel but living with them? Not fun.

  5. I can imagine no better place for crime than the workplace – there is usually so much ego, backstabbing, traipsing over corpses to further your career going on…

    • Marina Sofia – Right you are about many people’s views and motives in the workplace. I think that’s a little of why people sometimes ‘burn out’ on the job…

  6. It truly is amazing how much a person will share with co-workers over coffee, lunch, or that happy hour right after work. People tend to feed small facts and stories over a long period of time, but if the listeners are really paying attention, they learn more than they probably should know. The problem for detectives, however, is separating the facts from the rumors, which also play a big part in companies. Another intriguing post, one that reminds me how happy I am to be retired. 😀

    • Pat – LOL! Yes, once one’s retired one doesn’t have to worry about those rumours and the fact that people probably know more about one than is a good idea. You’re right too that in both real life and crime fiction, the detective has to sort through what people say about co-workers and figure out what’s truer, what is perceived to be true (i.e. an honest misinterpretation) and what’s a downright deliberate lie. And then there are simply differences in perception that also have to be sorted through…

  7. I love ‘Murder Must Advertise’. It’s my favourite Sayer. As Marina Sofia says, things can get very nasty in the workplace, but conidering so many people have day jobs, it’s surprising that more crime books aren’t set there. I remember reading one of Rankin’s Rebus books in the civil service which brought back memories of my days working for the public sector.

    • Sarah – You bring up an interesting point. A lot of authors do have ‘day jobs’ and just about all have at least had some ‘day job’ experience. So you would think there’d be more crime fiction that takes place in a business setting. And I like Murder Must Advertise too. There is a good mystery there of course but there are also solid characters and some humour too. And the setting makes one remember that some things transcend era…

  8. kathy d.

    This is a very good theme and considering how difficult and strained some office relationships can be, I’m surprised more mysteries aren’t set in the workplace. However, even Harry Bosch has hassles at work, so it’s to his advantage that he can take his work outside and pursue those cold cases in his own way. So many cops do that, including Harry Hole. Being a team player isn’t so easy.
    Private detectives don’t usually have these hassles as they’re on their own.
    But plenty of protagonists have them, even conflicts in law offices among defense or prosecuting attorneys — inside the books.
    Human being are complicated and often work under much stress, thus exacerbating tensions. It is easy to see how crime fiction can investigate office strains and personality conflicts — and how they can lead to murder and mayhem.

    • Kathy – You make an interesting point. Some protagonists (such as Bosch, Hole and a few others) do have workplace conflicts but they spend a lot of time on their own, so those conflicts aren’t always a part of each day. Others (I’m thinking of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti) spend a lot of time with colleagues so workplace conflicts (I’m thinking of what happens with Giuseppe Patta) are more common
      In either case you’re absolutely right that people are complex. They interact in complex ways. So we shouldn’t be surprised that when you put a group of people together there are office conflicts. And yes indeed they can lead to more than just a few cold words.

  9. kathy d.

    Well, true, Guido Brunetti is a well-adjusted, sociable human being. He relates well to everyone, even those in the questura whom he dislikes. He knows how to act his way through difficult scenarios with Patta and Scarpa.
    But he deals well with Vianello and Elettra Zorzi.
    But he’s used to dealing well with other people. He is happily married in what is a complicated relationship, which even has a “third person in it — Henry James.” He is a content family guy, loves his spouse and children, comes home for lunch when he can and gets along well with his in-laws.
    Harry Hole, Harry Bosch and others who are on their own don’t generally have good, solid ongoing personal relationships and it’s hard for them to maintain them.

    • Kathy – You’ve made a well-taken point about the difference in what you might call social adjustment between Brunetti and characters such as Bosch and Hole. They do find it harder to mix socially for a variety of reasons even though they can when they need to. I find that variety among characters interesting though. It’s what you might call a ‘slice of life’ since in real life, we’re different that way too.

  10. kathy d.

    Oh, absolutely. There has to be variety in personalities and characteristics in fiction and real life, or things would be very boring. This is especially true in mysteries where we search out variety and even if we are hooked on a series, we turn to other books in between them or after reading a few we look to other authors and characters. No one wants to be stuck in a rut, even in fiction.

    • Kathy – That’s a well-taken point. I think a lot of people have the same preference that you do. They may have series they especially like, but they like variety too.

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