If you’ve ever been unemployed, you know the mix of fear and shame that being out of work can bring. There are of course people who don’t want to work. But the vast majority of people without jobs are not unemployed because they like it that way. On one level, the most basic of levels, unemployment threatens one’s security. Even for people who live in countries that have social ‘safety nets,’ unemployment means re-thinking every purchase. It means possibly having to leave one’s home. It means a struggle to provide the barest essentials. On another level there’s the whole matter of social perception. People who are unemployed, especially if it’s for more than a brief period, are often looked at with pity or worse, with hostility (i.e. ‘Why don’t you get off your lazy a*** and get a job!’). On yet another level there’s the deep sense of shame one feels when one doesn’t have work. After all, many people’s identities are tied up with what they do. I’ll bet when you meet someone for the first time, one of the questions that invariably get asked is, ‘What do you do for a living?’ So it’s not surprising that being unemployed deeply affects the way we act, the way we think and the way we look at the world. And it can drive people to all sorts of things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Little wonder then that unemployment is a thread that’s woven through a lot of crime fiction. Let me just give a few examples.
Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is the story of Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a charwoman. Everyone in the village of Broadhinny thinks that Mrs. McGinty was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. And there is evidence against him. And yet, Superintendent Spence thinks Bentley may be innocent, so he asks Poirot to go to Broadhinny and look into the matter. One of the things that Poirot finds out quickly is that there’s a lot of local prejudice against Bentley. He had a job at an estate agent’s office but lost it and hasn’t been able to find another. That in itself is a major strike against him and it deeply affects his already shaky self-confidence. In fact, Bentley is so lacking in self-respect that he sees little point in re-investigating the case. Fortunately for him, Poirot doesn’t see things the same way and is able to find out the truth about Mrs. McGinty’s death.
In Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, we meet William Decker. He’s a former safecracker who’s decided to ‘go straight’ mostly for the sake of his son. But it’s hard to find a job and after all, one can’t feed a child on good intentions. So Decker takes a fateful decision. One day, Spillane’s sleuth Mike Hammer is in a seedy bar when Decker comes in with his son. He downs two drinks in quick succession, says goodbye to his son and leaves the bar. Seconds later he’s knocked down in what looks like a hit-and-run incident. Hammer dashes outside in time to see that this is no ordinary hit-and-run tragedy. The passenger in the car that struck Decker also shot him to make he was dead. Hammer takes in Decker’s son and determines to find out who’s behind the murder. It turns out that Decker was desperate for money and got mixed up with a local criminal gang. At first it looks as though members of that gang killed him as punishment for bungling a job. But the reality turns out to be quite different.
Robert Pollock’s Loophole takes a solid look at several levels on which unemployment can wreak havoc on a person. Stephen Booker is an architect who’s just lost his job. At first, he works hard to find another, but he’s unsuccessful and begins to sink into depression. Finally, he settles for the only thing that he can find: a job driving a cab at night. He doesn’t earn much money but his self-respect and his marriage are suffering and he’s desperate for whatever he can get. Booker’s cab driving puts him in touch with professional thief Mike Daniels, who’s busy planning a major heist. He and his team want to break into the City Savings Deposit Bank. When Daniels discovers that Booker is an architect by background, he decides that the team could really use Booker’s expertise to perfect their plan. At first Booker refuses. But his sense of self-respect and his dire financial straits finally convince him that he ought to go along with the gang and that’s what he does. On the day of the break-in, all is planned and ready until a major storm comes through and changes everything. Now, Booker, Daniels and the rest will have to fight the weather as well as look out for the police and security staff if they’re to get their haul.
Ruth Rendell’s Simisola takes a close look at the financial and social consequences of unemployment. Twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande wants to find a job and get her adult life started, so she schedules an appointment at the local employment bureau. Shortly after that appointment she disappears. Her father, who’s a doctor, asks his patient Reg Wexford to look into the disappearance and after a few days, Wexford does so. He and his team are just beginning to ask questions when the body of Annette Bystock is discovered. It was with Bystock that Melanie Akande had her appointment so the investigation team starts to focus its attention on the employment bureau. As the team members interview the bureau’s employees and those who make use of the employment service, we see the effects of not having a job on everyone’s perceptions. For example, those who apply for help are given appointments and then made to wait, sometimes for hours, until someone actually sees them. And those who work at the bureau don’t all have what you could call compassionate attitudes. On the other hand, not all of the job applicants are hard-working people who have simply had a tragic piece of bad luck. In the meantime, Wexford’s son-in-law Neil has lost his job. He is hardly perfect, but we see in his response to being unemployed how frustrating, enervating and humiliating it can be to be jobless. Rendell doesn’t offer easy answers to the problem of unemployment, which is just as well; there aren’t any. But she does invite the reader to think about how being unemployed affects one’s sense of self-worth and one’s choices. She also invites readers to think about the effects of others’ perceptions of those who have no jobs.
There’s an unflinching look at that perception in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. That novel’s main plot is the investigation into the murder of Tasmania police sergeant John White, who is stabbed when he and a colleague Lucy Howard are called to the scene of a break-in. The prime suspect for the crime is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from Glenorchy, a low-income suburb of Hobart. Police Commissioner Ron Chalmers is furious that one of his best men has been killed and is only too happy to write Darren Rowley off. As we learn more about Chalmers, we also learn his attitude towards those without jobs, especially those who live in places like Glenorchy. Here’s a bit of the way he compares the unemployed residents of Glenorchy with other people:
‘One generation of normal, sane, hardworking, decent, contributing human beings as opposed to two generations of dole-bludging, thieving, fighting pieces of trash.’
Chalmers’ attitude about the unemployed is extreme. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t shared by a lot of people.
That social perception of unemployment as a disgrace, combined with the sense of personal shame and of course, the fear of not being able to survive, makes having no job a very stressful situation. Sadly, it happens to millions of people so it’s no surprise that crime writers explore the problem. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. There are many more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Blue Collar Man (Long Nights). Readers who are kind enough to check this blog regularly may remember that I just used this song a few days ago. Usually I don’t do that, but this part of the song reflects the reality for a lot of people without jobs.