In The Spotlight: Maureen Carter’s Working Girls

>In The Spotlight: Ian Rankin's Exit MusicHello, All,

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


Filed under Maureen Carter, Working Girls

18 responses to “In The Spotlight: Maureen Carter’s Working Girls

  1. This does sound very interesting, Margot. I will keep this book on my list for future reading.

  2. Very interesting – I haven’t come across this book, but I like the idea of it taking a clear-sighted look at an important issue, while also being an good crime novel.

    • That’s what I thought, Moira. Carter is very honest about the profession, although the novel isn’t deep-dark gritty. At the same time, she portrays these people as individuals. They have their own personalities, dignity and so on, too. They may not exactly speak with a refined accent, but some of them are quite bright, too.

  3. Can’t in truth say this one appeals much to me, but I enjoyed your spotlight as always, Margot. 🙂

  4. Thanks Margot – it remains a difficult subject but when it’s handled well then it sounds really compelling – another for the shopping cart I think 🙂

  5. Interesting spotlight, Margot. I don’t think I have read a mystery set around sex workers, though I have read novels where they play inconsequential characters only to be bumped off midway. I’m not sure what they add to the overall narrative.

    • That’s an interesting question, Prashant. I think it really depends on how the author weaves those characters into the story. In this one, we do get to go ‘behind the scenes’ and get to know these young women as people. I think that adds to the interest in the story.

  6. I’m glad you shined a light on this book, Margot. When I first heard the term NHI (no humans involved) I was outraged that detectives would take this sort of stand. Though I don’t agree with their occupations, they certainly are people, with real feelings, backstories, and hardships. I might have to read this book on principal alone.

    • I agree with you, Sue, about that term. Would I get into the game? No. But the people who do have their reasons. More importantly, as you say, they are people, with their own identities and stories. They deserve to be treated as such. By the way, if you’re interested in exploring this topic, you can also check out Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District, the second in her Sasha Jackson series. Not only is Jackson a well-written protagonist, but the mysteries are solid, too. And this particular one looks at the lives of Toronto sex workers in a sort of similar way to the way Carter’s novel looks at Birmingham’s sex workers.

  7. Such thoughtful and diverse comments. Thank you for highlighting my book, Margot. You and your readers may find it interesting to learn that I carried out a great deal of research before putting fingers to keyboard. I went out at night on the streets with police officers who introduced me to many working girls. I interviewed a large number and have to say they were more than generous with their time – and each and every one had an extraordinary story to tell. One of the reasons I wrote the book was that I disliked the way sex workers were often portrayed in fiction and the media. I hope more than anything that I portray them as individuals.

    • Thanks, Maureen, both for your visit and your insights. I understand all about the research needed to make a story authentic; thanks for sharing the way you went about it. I agree completely that working girls have often been portrayed in stereotyped ways, rather than as the individuals they are. Depicting sex workers as the unique people they are, as you’ve done, is helpful both to our understanding and to the quality of stories about them.

  8. Col

    I do like the sound of this, but will reluctantly take a pass for now.

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

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