I’m Your Handy Man*

Occasional WorkersThere are some times and some kinds of jobs for which companies don’t want to hire full-time (or even regular part-time) workers. For those jobs, they often hire temporary workers. For instance, a retailer may hire a few extra people for the Christmas season. Or a farm might hire extra workers for harvesting. Contractors do that too, when they have a big job, or several smaller jobs at the same time. Individuals sometimes hire odd-jobbers and day workers too, depending on what the project is.

There are a lot of categories of such workers. There are migrant farm workers, contracting day workers and odd-jobbers, among many others. I’ll just refer to them all as occasional workers; it’s a bit of an all-inclusive term, but it serves the purpose.

We see these characters in crime fiction and that makes sense. They are a part of real life, and they can be interesting people. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

John Steinbeck wrote several novels about occasional workers. One of his most famous is the novella Of Mice and Men, which tells the story of migrant farm workers George Milton and Lennie Small. Lennie is limited intelligence, but he is a hard worker, and a very loyal friend to George. As the story begins, they’ve had to leave their last farm job because of the trouble caused when Lennie was accused of attempted rape. He’s not guilty, by most people’s definition. He didn’t want to stop stroking a young woman’s dress because it was soft, and didn’t understand why he couldn’t do that. Lennie and George get jobs at a different farm, but trouble follows them. For one thing, the boss’ son is arrogant and dangerous. For another, his wife is flirtatious. Matters get worse and worse until there’s a tragic death.

Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman also features migrant workers. In this case, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is sent to the small town of Merino, do look into the death of farm worker George Kendell. Bony goes in the guise of a ‘swagman,’ or itinerant worker. He’s looking into that case when respected citizen Ted Bennett suddenly dies of a heart attack. Then, another body is found. This time it’s itinerant worker John Way, whose body is discovered in the same hut where Kendell died. Bony is convinced that the three cases are connected, and so they prove to be. For those who like cryptic clues and insight into the life of swagmen, there’s a neat little clue on the door of the hut…

Margaret Yorke’s Crime in Question is in part the story of Audrey Bannerman, who’s beginning again after a divorce and the suicide of her daughter. She returns to her former home, the village of Coxton, and starts the process of coming back to life, so to speak. Near the village is a sort of open prison that houses non-violent offenders, one of whom is Jim Sawyer. Bannerman hires Sawyer to do odd jobs for her, and the arrangement suits both of them. In the meantime, Yvonne and Charles Davies have recently moved to Coxton and are trying to fit in there. Yvonne hires a local teen Denis to do odd jobs for her. But things go quickly downhill when Denis decides to rob his employers’ home. He seeks help from small-time crook Len, and the arrangements are made. But the job goes tragically wrong and the result is a murder. For personal reasons, Sawyer has left the area, and the police immediately assume he’s guilty. Now he’s going to have to try to clear his name, with very few people willing to believe him.

One plot thread of Michael Robotham’s The Suspect concerns the home owned by psychologist Joe O’Loughlin and his wife Julianne. Early in the novel, the boiler stops working, and the O’Loughlins have to hire a plumber. A local plumber, D.J. Morgan, has put a flyer through letterboxes in the area, and Julianne hires him to do the job. Here’s what her husband has to say about it:

‘I contemplate asking him a question but know from experience not to advertise my ignorance around tradesmen. I am not a handyman; I have no interest in DIY, which is why I can still count to twenty on my fingers and toes.’

And that’s often the reason for which people hire occasional workers: they don’t have the skills to do the job themselves.

There’s also Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season. That novel features Belle Vie, a one-time Louisiana plantation that has become a tourist destination. When Inés Avalo, a migrant worker who’s employed at a nearby farm, is found murdered, Belle Vie’s manager Caren Gray gets involved in the investigation. One of her part-time employees is suspected of the murder, but there is evidence that he’s innocent, and Gray believes that he is. She looks into the case further, and finds a possible connection to a long-ago murder.

Occasional workers are woven into the economic and social fabric of our society, so it makes sense that we’d also see them in crime fiction. I’ve only had space for a few examples. Over to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jimmy Jones and Otis Blackwell’s Handy Man. There are different recordings of this one out there. Listen to the original Jimmy Jones, the James Taylor and others and see which you like best.


Filed under Arthur Upfield, Attica Locke, John Steinbeck, Margaret Yorke, Michael Robotham

25 responses to “I’m Your Handy Man*

  1. Ooh, I’ve actually read two of the books you mention – I think that’s a first! The Robotham and Of Mice and Men. I don’t think I’ve ever sobbed quite so much over anything as I did when reading Of Mice – I was a hormonal teenager at the time admittedly, but I’ve never had the courage to try to read it again… 😉

    • FictionFan – Oh, it is such a sad story, isn’t it? I had more than one tearful moment. And I think Steinbeck did such a fine job of portraying the lives of migrant farmers. One of his strengths I think was depicting the lives of even the downtrodden as having interest and value.

  2. You introduced me to books by Phoebe Atwood Taylor, and IIRC, her sleuth Asey Mayo was a local handyman…. what a good cover for doing some handy snooping and knowing everything that’s going on….

    • Oh, absolutely, Moira!! Asey Mayo is a brilliant example of a handy man sleuth. I’m so glad you mentioned him and of course am now mentally kicking myself for not including him in the post. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  3. tracybham

    I haven’t read any of the books you featured, except for Of Mice and Men. Well, I have read some Upfield, but not sure about The Swagman. All of them sound good, and I will have to add them to my list for someday.

  4. I can’t think of one book that has occasional workers in it. And I think I’m probably one of the few who didn’t read Of Mice And Men, but I did see the movie. Does that count? LOL

  5. My first thought was the silk stocking salesman in ABC MURDERS again but that turned out to be a very peculiar work engagement 🙂

    • Sergio – Oh, yes indeed it did :-). I’m glad you mentioned that novel, because it certainly shows the life of the itinerant salesperson, which you don’t see now the way you did.

  6. Kathy D.

    I haven’t read “Of Mice and Men,” but another classic by Steinbeck was part of my teen-age education about the reality of life for farmers during the Great Depression, forced to go to California to seek work — and that was “The Grapes of Wrath.” Gosh, did I learn from that book, things which I’ve kept with me all these years.
    And this post is a nudge for me to read “The Cutting Season,” by Attica Locke. It’s been on the TBR mountain, but I haven’t yet read it.

    • A really interesting book that I do recommend, if you get the chance. Attica Locke is a very politically engaged writer – and this is an antidote to my teenage ‘Gone with the Wind’ obsession.

    • Kathy – I almost mentioned Of Mice and Men on the blog, but then I went with the other, so I’m glad you brought it up. It’s a powerful book. And I know all too well what you mean about books on the TBR for too long…

  7. You know I’m going to mentione Eva Dolan, don’t you, Margot? Her two books Tell No Tales and Long Way Home are all about migrant workers and their life in the South East of England: a very realistic, if dark picture.

    • I thought you might mention Dolan, Marina Sofia :-). Those books are terrific examples of what I had in mind with this post. Not, as you say, light reading, but realistic.

  8. It’s good to see the theme that started with DIY developing through renovation to migrant workers. I do
    need to read Steinbeck!

  9. Col

    Reminded me of an Elmore Leonard book and film with Charles Bronson – Mr Majestyk, with a water melon farmer under threat from the mob.

  10. Patti Abbott

    A really interesting topic because of access to your home. The very first crime story I wrote was about a guy who fixed fireplaces and used the opportunity to make copies of keys.

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