Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many people put commercial sex workers into a separate, and lower, social category. And there are dozens of stereotypes associated with that line of work, so that it’s easy to forget that these people are individuals with their own stories. Let’s take a look at some of the individuals behind the mini-skirts and makeup today, and turn the spotlight on Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, which takes place in Birmingham.
The real action in the story begins when the body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found by a school caretaker. Under the supervision of Detective Superintendent Bill Byford, DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team begin an investigation. They soon discover that Michelle was a sex worker who’d been in care since the age of twelve. With not very much else to go on, Morriss gets clearance to start with the other sex workers who do their business on Thread Street, near the school where Michelle’s body was discovered.
It’s not long before Morriss connects with Michelle’s best friend Vicki Flinn. Vicki doesn’t know for sure who killed her friend, but she does start to give Morriss some background information. It seems that both girls have been working for a pimp named Charlie Hawes. The more Morriss learns about Hawes, the more contempt she has for him. But that doesn’t mean Hawes is the killer. What’s more, even if Hawes is responsible, Vicki can’t give a reliable description of him, and doesn’t know anything about where he lives or does business. Putting him at the scene of the crime is going to be a challenge.
Then, another of Hawes’ employees, Cassandra Swain, is badly beaten. Morriss tries to connect again with Vicki, but she’s gone missing. As far as Morriss is concerned, whether or not Hawes is guilty, he has a lot to answer for, and she wants to catch him. That’s not going to be easy, though. He’s earned his nickname ‘Mad Charlie,’ and no-one is willing to risk getting on his bad side. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that more than one person lies to Morriss out of fear, putting her and her team on the wrong path.
Morriss is not without resources, though. She gets to know some of the other sex workers in the area, and learns quite a lot from them. And she and DC Ossama ‘Ozzie’ Khan track down other leads as well. In the end, and after another murder, they’re able to find out the truth about this case.
And the truth is more complicated than it seems on the surface. There is more than one possible explanation for what’s happened. For example, there’s a local group that’s determined to rid the area of sex workers, so that ‘respectable’ people can go about their business. They’ve been protesting and threatening, and it’s possible that one of them could have crossed the line between words and action.
Their protests reflect one important element in this novel: stereotyping of sex workers. The activist group has, of course, a very low opinion of ‘those kinds of girls,’ and their views are shared by many others. Even the police, who are supposed to protect everyone, are not as quick to rush out when the victim is a sex worker. As Morriss tells her boss,
‘‘…you know as well as I do, there are blokes in this place who wouldn’t piss on a prostitute if she was on fire.’’
The sex workers themselves know this, and their opinion of the police isn’t much better.
There are other kinds of prejudice too that we see in the novel. For example, Khan has to deal with plenty of people who stereotype him because of his ethnic background. And Morriss has to cope with her colleague Mike Powell.
‘She knew it was a cliché: young female cop on shite terms with sexist, senior male officer. She knew it. Only trouble was, Mike Powell lived and breathed it.’
Powell’s opinion of women in general and sex workers in particular is made clear in the novel.
At the same time, though, another element in the book is the debunking of a lot of these stereotypes. For instance, Morriss’ boss Bill Byford is supportive, and by and large respects her and the work she does. He calls her out when she’s wrong, but he regards her as the equal of her male colleagues. Readers who are tired of stereotypically awful bosses who are out to sabotage their subordinates will be pleased.
As Morriss gets to know the other sex workers involved in this case, we see that they’re a complex and diverse group of people. Some are quite young – students who want to be ‘in the game’ long enough to earn some money, so they can go after their dreams. Others do it because that’s what they know. Still others see that it’s quite lucrative. One of them puts it this way:
‘‘My sister, Mand. She’s eighteen. She works in an ‘airdressers five days a week. Brings home fifty-five quid. I make twice that in an hour – and I ain’t on me feet all day.’’
They have their own kind of dignity and pride, and they really don’t see themselves as victims. They’re resourceful, too, and they have their own kind of wit. One, for instance, has a large collection of stuffed pigs – one for every time she’s been pulled in by the coppers.
Another important element in this novel is its working-class Birmingham setting and context. The lifestyle and culture of that city are woven throughout the story. So is the ‘Brummie’ dialect.
It’s also worth saying a word or two about the character of Bev Morriss. She is smart and capable without at the same time being invulnerable. She’s managed to carve out a place for herself at the Highgate station, and she has the makings of a very good cop. She and Khan make their share of mistakes; neither is perfect. They do their jobs well, though.
Working Girls shows what life is like for Midlands sex workers, and for the police who are supposed to protect them – and arrest them. It features an intelligent and resourceful group of coppers who are up against a dangerous enemy, and has a distinctive Birmingham setting. But what’s your view? Have you read Working Girls? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 10 August/Tuesday 11 August – Massacre Pond – Paul Doiron
Monday 17 August/Tuesday 18 August – Seneca Falls Inheritance – Miriam Grace Monfredo
Monday 24 August/Tuesday 25 August – Bitter Wash Road – Garry Disher