Same as the Old Boss*

Bad BossesAs I mentioned yesterday, having a supportive, competent boss can make all the difference in your professional world. But not everyone is so fortunate. If you’ve ever had a terrible boss, you know what a nightmare that can be. That kind of work stress can be intolerable.

There are of course plenty of crime-fictional examples of incompetent, non-supportive and even downright malicious, sadistic bosses. Creating these characters can be tricky, since most crime fiction fans don’t want unidimensional characters. Most people, even awful bosses, have at least some redeeming quality. But an annoying (or worse) boss can give the author lots of opportunity for conflict, sub-plots and so on.

Michael Connelly’s LAPD cop Harry Bosch has a boss who certainly makes his life difficult. In The Black Echo, we are introduced to Irvin Irving, then a Deputy Chief. In more than one of the books in this series, Irving shows that he’s self-protective and highly political. He’s also not in the least bit above squelching any honest investigation that may make him or the department look bad. So even those not deeply familiar with this series will be able to guess that he makes life very difficult for Bosch and sometimes represents a real threat to him. Connelly doesn’t give Irving’s character only one facet though. He is competent, and people loyal to him will tell you that he stands up for the police force. But to Bosch, for whom integrity is essential, Irving is part of what’s wrong with the department.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that he is saddled with a dreadful boss, Vice Questore Giuseppe Patta. Patta is a toady to the rich and well-connected. More than that, he’s an ambitious man who’s not above ‘glory-grabbing’ to make his mark. In several novels he interferes with investigations, pulls Brunetti from cases, and in other ways impedes work. Most of the time it’s because he’s being protective both of his own reputation and of those of the rich, powerful people he thinks can do him some good. Brunetti is no fool, though; more than once, he and Patta’s assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, use Patta’s vanity, arrogance and ambition against him.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a boss, ACC Lauren Self, who isn’t much better. Self is also ambitious, and well aware that moving up into the higher echelons of police power is still easier for men than for women. So she does everything she can to improve her political position. Even Scarlett, who has little but contempt for Self, admits that her boss is very good at getting influential people on her side. She manages the social aspect of police politics quite well. But underneath that exterior, Self can be very malicious, even backstabbing. Certainly she’s not respectful of the people who work for her; nor does she listen to what they tell her about what’s really going on as they investigate. Again, Edwards doesn’t depict Self as one-sided. She does have skills. But she certainly hasn’t endeared herself to her team members.

Sometimes, even when you have a boss you like and respect, things can change if that boss leaves, transfers or is temporarily away. That’s what happens in Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. New South Wales Police Detective Ella Marconi likes and respects her usual boss Dennis Orchard. But he’s on a temporary assignment elsewhere, so Brad Langley steps in as acting head of homicide. On the one hand, he knows and follows police procedure, and is competent at what he does. It’s no surprise that he’s been tapped to head this team. On the other hand, he is, as Howell tells us,

‘…a numbers man.’

He doesn’t use department resources wisely, and he doesn’t listen to the people who work for him. What’s more, he can be publicly rude to his team members, especially when they suggest anything other than what he outlines for them. It’s little wonder Marconi misses Orchard.

Adrian Hyland’s Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest also has a very bad experience with a temporary boss. In Gunshot Road, we learn that she’s just begun her duties as an ACPO, and is hoping to work with Tom McGillivray, whom she likes and respects. But when he is badly injured, Tempest is assigned to work with Bruce Cockburn. From the very first, they dislike each other. Cockburn is brusque and disrespectful. He’s sometimes rude and not one to pay much attention to what Tempest says. For his part, Cockburn finds Tempest too much of a maverick and too tactless. So when they investigate the shooting death of former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins, they butt heads almost immediately. Matters worsen between them as the novel goes on. Hyland doesn’t depict Cockburn as all bad. Some of the things he says are right, and the points he makes well-taken. He’s not completely incompetent, and Tempest makes her share of mistakes. But Cockburn is certainly not skilled at supervising with any kind of respect.

Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka police detective Patrik Hedström also has an insufferable boss. Bertil Mellberg. Especially in the earlier novels in the series, he is rude, lazy and disrespectful. He is also ambitious, and considers his current assignment to be a ‘backwater.’ His only goal is to be transferred ‘up the pole’ to the bigger and more prestigious police department in Göteborg. Admittedly, as the series evolves, it becomes a little easier to work with Mellberg. He gets a little more responsive to his team and actually does some work on his own. But he’s hardly ‘boss of the year’ material.

If you’ve ever had a ‘nightmare boss,’ you know what an impediment it is. But perhaps some of the really unpleasant fictional bosses will make the ones you’ve had seem a bit better by comparison…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. I couldn’t resist the symmetry…


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Camilla Läckberg, Donna Leon, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly

24 responses to “Same as the Old Boss*

  1. Wow two posts about bosses! I had noticed that Patrik Hedström’s boss becomes a little easier to work with – I also would like to mention Ruth Galloway’s boss Phil who is more keen on self-promotion than any real work, not an awful boss but definitely one that falls in the ‘could do better’ category.

  2. Kathy D.

    I’m so glad to see Giuseppe Patta’s name in this blog post. He is the bad boss I was thinking of when I read the good boss post. Yes, agreed that he is a toady to the rich and powerful and with him it is all about self-promotion and maintaining the status quo with the wealthy and not rocking the boat.
    However, the smart and tactful Commissario Guido Brunetti, together with Elettra Zorzi carry out all sorts of investigations. He uses her sometimes questionable computer skills. But Brunetti doesn’t give up an investigation just because Patta orders him to do so. He keeps right on going, although discreetly, and he does solve the cases.
    And sometimes he does it in a way that makes Patta look good as Brunetti is clever that way and does fool his boss at times.
    There is a new Brunetti book out so we fans can again dig in.

    • I thought you might be thinking of Patta, Kathy, when I read your comment. He certainly is a ‘nightmare’ boss. Not only is he thoroughly self-involved and self-important, but he’s more concerned about looking after the interests of the rich and powerful than he is in solving crime. As you say though, Brunetti and Signorina Elettra (Vianello, too) find ways to get around him….

  3. msugar13

    Excellent post on bad bosses. I know that we are told & taught, over and over, that for our characters to be believable, realistic, three dimensional etc., that even our villains and antagonist should have some redeeming qualities, but that is a difficult order when writing crime fiction and your MC’s boss is a political figure. Far too often the end always justifies the means and they curry favor from other politicians. The law and legal system is their playground and they bow to the rich and influential. It is a system of favors offered for protection and favors done to repay campaign contributions. In my opinion, it is better to leave these villains as purely bad, and contribute to their character by giving them special skills or making them someone to be utterly feared. I like all of your examples. Bosh is the only way I am familiar enough with to remember his boss. I will make a point to read the other authors you referenced. I enjoyed your article.


    • Thanks for the kind words, Melissa. You’re absolutely right that three-dimensional characters can make stories work better, so that’s what writers are asked to create. And I think that’s sound advice. But as you say, there are people in real life who are nasty pieces of work. They toady to the rich, peddle their influence, and worse. So why shouldn’t fictional characters be like that? I think it’s certainly possible to have a believable character who is like that; it’s a matter of crafting that person so that she or he is authentic. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  4. “Numbers” and ticking boxes seem to take over every aspect of my work these days – is it so for writers too?

  5. Margot: In law firms individuals perceived as bad bosses can sometimes more accurately be described as part of a “bad” system. I am not fan of the expectations of big law firms for young lawyers. While my view is not as extreme as John Grisham in such books as The Associates and Gray Mountain I consider the hours they expect unreasonable. The pressure managing partners put on young lawyers to meet billing targets produces resentment. In The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe, the murder victim who is a senior partner, is memorably described by a new lawyer as follows:

    “Of course not, I thought he was a flaming asshole like everybody else
    did. I mean, a successful asshole, I don’t mean to be disrespectful ….”

    • Thanks very much for your perspective on this, Bill. I’ve often heard that, especially in the larger law firms, younger lawyers are put under extreme pressure by the partners. I’ve certainly read about it in novels such as Grisham’s and Margolin’s, among others. Little wonder Wolfe includes that description. It’s reminiscent of what I’ve seen in some universities. Graduate students and newly-minted Ph.D. holders are sometimes put under that kind of pressure too as they try to get their careers going. I’m not much of a fan of that system either.

  6. Col

    I quite liked Leif Persson’s Backstrom in his Scandinavian books. He’s everything you wouldn’t want in your own boos, but incredibly entertaining to read about.

    • Oh, he is a good example of a dreadful boss, isn’t he, Col? And yet, the team solves cases, and the stories hold readers’ interest. As you say, it’s entertaining to read about him, even if you’d never want to have him as your boss.

  7. So true. I was always lucky in this area. For the most part I had wonderful bosses. But my favorite (a lawyer I stayed with for ten years) changed once a new partner joined the firm. His stock answer became “What did so-and-so say?” like he no longer had an opinion of his own. And I think this brings up a good point. A great boss who’s only nice in private, or who changes when someone new joins the firm, or department, as in crime fiction — a great way to show first and second dimensions of character. Hmm… maybe I’m on to something here. LOL

    • You very well might be, Sue. There are certainly plausible reasons someone might change in that way, or might act one way in private, but another in public. And that certainly gives the author some terrific opportunities to show character depth. And it’s interesting how your boss made that sort of change. So much potential in a dynamic like that… I’m glad you’ve had good bosses through the years.

  8. DC Maeve Kerrigan’s immediate boss,Josh Derwent in Jane Casey’s books tries to bully and goad her – her makes her so angry, but she can stand up to him. But his boss, Supt Charles Godley is different again and is much more supportive. It makes a good contrast!

    • Oh, it certainly does, Margaret. I’m glad you’ve brought that example up, as I think you also see Derwent doing a little growing as the series goes on. Not that he turns into the world’s most perfect boss, but he does evolve a bit. And it is interesting to see how Kerrigan interacts with the pair of them.

  9. Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson is always very funny about his bosses – in general he has no time for them at all. I like the one who has ‘a PhD in office politics’, and a special facial expression for when he is caught out leaving top secret documents in the photocopier to be rescued by the next person along. Of course the brilliance of Deighton is that you can also see that Samson might not be the easiest employee to deal with.

    • That’s quite true, Moira. And I do love that line about having ‘a Ph.D. in office politics.’ In some places, you really need one of those. And Deighton’s skill at sharp narrative and dialogue just adds ‘punch’ to Sansom’s character (and internal thoughts).

  10. I’ve had my share of bad bosses but I’ve also had some good ones. Yes, even the bad ones need to be given a redeeming quality. Good discussion!!

    • Glad you enjoyed the discussion, Traci. I always learn from you folks who comment here. And you’ve a good point: any character, good boss/bad boos, has to have some ’roundness.’ That includes some redeeming features even if the character’s not sympathetic.

  11. tracybham

    In my work life, I have had more bad bosses than good bosses. Currently have a great one, and have had a few in the past. I wonder if that is why there seem to be so many bad bosses in fiction, or if bad bosses are just more interesting?

    • Oh, that’s an interesting question, Tracy! I think there are a lot of bad bosses out there (I’m very glad you don’t have one at the moment). So I can see why that would find its way into fiction. Or perhaps such characters are just more attention-getting or memorable. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s