I’m Just a Poor Soul in the Unemployment Line, My God, I’m Hardly Alive*

UnemploymentIf 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane, Robert Pollock, Ruth Rendell, Y.A. Erskine

31 responses to “I’m Just a Poor Soul in the Unemployment Line, My God, I’m Hardly Alive*

  1. A scary topic Margot and a nightmare to deal with any kind of realism in mystery fiction but thanks for showing so many fascinating examples. By the way, as a purely personal aside, I have never actually met, virtually or in person, anyone else that had read LOOPHOLE, a book I went through as a teen decades ago – that put a big smile on my face!

    • Sergoi – It really is scary isn’t it? It’s a difficult and painful subject to write about too, because it is awful. I respect people who address the issue. And I’m happy to know that you read and liked Loophole. You’re the first person who’s told me of reading it, too. Great minds… 😉

  2. kathy d.

    Nowadays so many people are unemployed of all ages and nationalities. A friend who just completed a Masters degree in Physics can’t find a job, any kind of a job, even jobs not requiring that degree. He is so down about it.
    Another friend’s son went on a trip after working in a restaurant to save money to do so. He graduated over a year ago and can’t find a job using his college degree.
    Not to mention middle-aged and older folks, whom I keep reading about who are laid off and can’t find jobs or have to take jobs at less than half their prior salary not using their skills.
    It’s a good topic for mysteries. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more books out there with this theme at this time during the current economic crisis.
    The Brotherhood: I found the attitudes tough to swallow, so much, the racism, the anti-poor bigotry, the cynicism. Yet this is probably realistic for those being portrayed. But, yiked! No one was untarnished or not jaded.
    The rest of the books cited above I have not read, although I think I read Simisola years ago. But it may be time to try to find some of these other books.

    • Kathy – There really is a lot of frightening unemployment out there isn’t there? And you’re quite right; it cuts across race, age group, education level and so on. It seems that these days, there aren’t many groups that are immune, and I think that the fact that unemployment could happen to anyone makes it even scarier. I’m sorry to hear of your friends’ situations – so sad! Perhaps that’s a bit of the reason why people who do have jobs so often studiously avoid those who don’t. It’s the ‘there, but for the grace of…’ syndrome.
      About The Brotherhood</i? Yes, there are a lot of extreme and (to me) abhorrent attitudes in that novel. But I think they do reflect what some people think. I think that's part of what makes that book a powerful read. Not an easy one, but a powerful one.

  3. Margot, enjoyed this. England is in the grip of massive unemployment and it is really sad to see those who have worked hard all their lives, diligently paid their National Insurance contributions, only to find themselves stigmatized and accused of being spongers when made redundant or their place of work ceases to exist. There is a head of steam in the Press, demonizing these unfortunates, as ‘shirkers’ and calling them ‘those whose curtains are still closed at 8am, whilst hard working people who are doing the right thing, are heading out to do a decent, honest day’s work.’

    It is happening to Disabled people who are now deemed able to work and are ‘swinging the lead’ by not working or at least trying to work. A nasty environment is being created and I can see, only too easily, that violence and civil unrest could be just one incident away. It might be an argument in a queue, a demonstration outside a factory or a Job Centre…who knows how it might begin, but I fear it might, especially with Europe throwing open our borders – indigenous people feeling resentment at the influx of ‘foreigners’ taking their jobs etc. We are all, apparently, one pay packet away from financial ruin. Imagine then, if there were riots and unrest and one person seethes silently, inwardly, resenting his neighbour who is ‘on the dole,’ and this hatred spills over…..it could happen. The authors you list have all tapped into their world around them and used it for background and tension in their work….it was good to be reminded of how they make it all work so well, craftily threading all this into their stories so that we almost don’t notice. True life lurking in fiction. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. Jx

    • Jane – Thanks – And how very sad that the current economic situation is causing such misery in England. As you say, being laid off or permanently separated can happen to anyone, even the most diligent worker. And after perhaps decades of being hard-working, tax-paying citizens, these people are stigmatised. Little wonder that being jobless is so hard on one’s self-respect. Of course there are people who are on the dole for convenience, but my guess is the vast, vast majority are not there because they like it. It must be horribly embarrassing, to say nothing of financially frightening.
      You have a well-taken and sobering point too that once there is public sentiment against those without work, there are all sorts of possibilities for unrest or worse. I think that’s especially true for those who have jobs but whose money buys far less than it did (i.e. ‘If it weren’t for those spongers, I could earn a decent wage and send my kids to school instead of scraping by as I do…’). The situation is getting ugly in a lot of places and it’s not helped by reckless editorials and uninformed blog rants. I do hope the economic times get better soon; hopefully there will be less pressure on everyone’s pocket.

  4. Margot, your description of unemployment and how job affects one’s sense of identity is so very good. When I was much younger, I had to change jobs due to a relocation, and got a much lower level job. I was surprised at how much that affected my feeling of self-worth. More recently, I was unemployed for 3 months (and very lucky to find something that quickly), and it is so scary… I can’t even describe the feeling.

    All of these books sound interesting. I haven’t read any of them. Will have to keep my eyes open for them.

    • Tracy – Thank you – that means a lot to me. I’m sorry to hear that you had to go through the awfulness of losing a job. Three days or five years or longer, being unemployed is scary. And you’re right; it’s so demoralising. I’m glad you found another job quickly.

  5. Christie does a very good job of making Bentley both worthy of your sympathy, yet someone who would drive you mad in real life. Golden Age writers – incl Christie in other books – often didn’t have much time for people who were out-of-work, whereas more modern books tend to be much more realistic and sympathetic, thank goodness.

    • Moira – You’ve got a well-taken point. Today’s writers invite you to care for characters who are out of work, especially if they didn’t lose their jobs because of theft or something egregious like that. I think Golden Age writers may simply not have been ready to tackle that problem yet although you’re quite right that Christie presents Bentley as more the victim than a bad person. But as you say, one wouldn’t want large doses of him in real life.

  6. Jan

    The reality that there is so much predjudice against the unemployed and the poor continues to haunt our cities, our jails, our hospitals. In Elizabethan England it was against the law to be poor. Yes. And why were people poor? Because the reformation caused private citizens to takeover the churches which may have been corrupt but were also refuges of the poor. Gosh – the more things change the more they seem the same huh?

    • Jan – When you put it that way, yes, things really do seem the same. We like to think we’ve evolved over the last 420 years or so, but sometimes one wonders… And you’re 100% right that widespread and deeply-ingrained prejudice against the unemployed is woven into a lot of segments of our society. In fact, it’s so ingrained that I think a lot of people react based on that prejudice without even thinking. You make a strong point here.

  7. This is becoming more and more of a problem, it will probably affect an entire generation, so I suspect certain extreme reactions will grow (see Spain and Greece – perhaps not surprising that crime fiction from those countries is reflecting that).

    • Marina Sofia – You’re quite right that the size and scope of unemployment is growing. And it probably will have repercussions for a very long time. There could indeed be extreme reactions to what’s going on. So no, there’s little wonder that it’s depicted in crime fiction.

  8. Sorry to hear about the hard time you’re having. I remember being unemployed as well and taking any job just to keep my head up. With 10 years experience in programming I was sweeping floors and stocking shelves. But things turned around.


    • Man of la Book – Thanks for the good wishes. I am fortunate enough to have a full-time job; I’m not unemployed. But anyone could lose a job and when that happens, as you know, it’s really difficult on a lot of levels. I’m glad things worked out for you.

  9. Interesting piece as I’m always amazed at how little work (outside of the police if course) appears in crime fiction. Yet the vast majority of us do some kind of paid work. Unemployment is an emotive subject and can work well in a plot to increase tension. In crime fiction you often get people temporarily suspended from their jobs for misdemeanours which can work well. The last one I read was Annika in Marklund’s ‘Last Will’ which allowed the character to go off-piste for a while.

    • Sarah – You’re right; there really are a lot of examples of sleuths who are temporarily suspended. In fact, I ought to do a post just on that point alone; it’s interesting and Last Will is a good example of it. Thanks for the inspiration. I think you also make a well-taken point that part of the reason unemployment as a theme works well in crime fiction is that it touch the reader at a visceral level. That sort of response draws the reader right into the story.

  10. SPOILER ALERT A favorite of mine is Donald Westlake’s THE AX, where the protagonist, on losing his job, murders everyone standing between him and a new job.

  11. I agree with Jane the situation in England is getting very worrying. The stigmatising of the unemployed is such that we are almost getting to the situation in the Great War when wounded were fitted out with I think a blue uniform so that they didn’t get given a white feather.
    In the dental profession there has been such a large influx of foreign qualified personnel that has meant dentists who have worked for 25 years in one place losing their jobs.

    • Norman – It’s such a sad tragedy that unemployment in England has gotten to such a state. And it makes matters worse that there is such sentiment against those who’ve lost their jobs. There isn’t an easy fix to the problem either. There are so many facets to it and a long list of causes. It seems to me that treating the symptom (unemployment) without looking at some of those underlying causes and working towards a solution isn’t going to be enough. I hope that at least the economic situation gets better so there will be perhaps a little less strain.

  12. kathy d.

    Agreed. It’s not as if people don’t need dentists. Here, there are many places where low-income populations don’t get dental care. They can’t afford it, and many governmental health insurance and subsidies have been cut back. And now it will get worse, with this “sequester” hanging over so many people.
    I remember a child in Delaware dying from a dental infection because his family couldn’t afford the $80 to take care of it and their Medicaid coverage had ended. Of course, the dentist could have taken care of him gratis.
    Underlying economic problems need fixing. I don’t see it now.
    So many people here have been unemployed in this recession or family members have been out of work. I’d think the prejudices would have eased up.
    But I really do worry about the long-term unemployed, especially youth, those with degrees and without.
    And middle-aged and older people who are laid off either can’t find jobs and eke out a living and use up savings until they reach early Social Security age or else take huge pay cuts. It’s a crisis, no doubt, and probably will worsen. I dread to read the news.

    • Kathy – You’re absolutely right that the long-term problems of the economy have more consequences than just unemployment, although of course that’s serious enough. Not being able to afford a simple medical procedure or medication can have tragic consequences and that’s the kind of thing that happens when there are serious economic problems and long-term poverty. And you’d think that there would be less prejudice against the unemployed, but I honestly don’t think it happens. I too hope that something happens soon to improve the economic situation; it is pretty dire and it’s not helping to ease problems such as poverty and unemployment.

    • Kathy if dentists turned that poor child away for $80 they should lose their licences! In my day [old dinosaur speaking] we were glad that we had the skill to help people and the fact that we were well paid even in the NHS [public health] was a bonus. Later on the system faltered as young dentists qualified with huge loans round their necks as opposed to us 1960s graduates who were given grants that did not have to be repaid.

  13. kathy d.

    And I dread to think what this “sequester” will mean in terms of layoffs and cutbacks in essential services, including health care, education and housing.
    I just got a reality check: Ran out of a medication. Pharmacist said it cost $210 and was not on my medication insurance plan. And no generic!
    A doctor wrote a prescription for a similar medication for 1/4 the price. Whew! But I thought of people whose children need these medications and they can’t afford them. Not good.
    Anyway, this is a reason why I crack open a good mystery — diversion, entertainment, fun, even if reality is also on its pages. It’s fiction!

    • Kathy – I’m sorry to hear about your medication cost – wow! I’m glad you were able to find something else more affordable. And you’re right that budget cuts and other austerity measures are especially hard on the poor and middle class, who often can’t afford huge leaps like that in the cost of medical care (to say nothing of anything else). And you’re right; one beauty of fiction is that we get the chance to escape…

  14. Perhaps I’m pushing things, but I see a connection between the P.I. and the unemployed as discussed here. Often the private dick’s a loner, an outcast, one of the “last cowboys,” sometimes forced into self-employed, freelance life. I accidentally stumbled on a strong device where the gumshoe didn’t get paid, one plot twist way or another, in three successive stories. Murder is brutal, sure–so is starvation.

    • Ben – That’s a really interesting connection. There are several fictional private investigators who get into the business because of financial desperation. I’m thinking for instance of Walter Mosley’s ‘Easy’ Rawlins, and there are, as you say, others. It’s an interesting and believable motive for getting into the PI business.

  15. As I read all the comments I do believe we read to escape. A lot of authors don’t write about the middle class or the down and out a lot as it hits too close to home for readers and writers alike. It is sad what is going on in the world regarding world financials and jobs.

    I read for enjoyment and to challenge my mind. Unemployment can be hard on anyone, especially if its for any length of time. It does seriously affect how we view the world around us and how we feel about ourselves.

    In all respects margot I love your blog and your writing, and I love how you discuss so much depth of writing and different angles.

    THank you 🙂

    • Mist-Writer – Thanks for the kind words; I’m glad you enjoy what you read. I think you make a well-taken point that when times are hard, reading is a good escape. So some readers may not to read about a topic that hits too close to home, so to speak. Other readers like to be able to identify with character, so when a character goes through something (like unemployment) that is all too familiar, it resonates with the reader.

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