If you’ve ever looked for a new job, you know how difficult it can be. To begin with, people don’t usually look for work actively unless they’re unhappy in their present job (which is a stress in and of itself) or they’re unemployed (also a major stressor). So it can be hard to muster the energy you need to present yourself at your very best. And even when times are good and jobs are available, there’s sometimes a lot of competition.
And then there’s the fact that a lot of potential employers don’t treat applicants particularly well. Some keep applicants waiting for a long time, and some are all but rude during interviews. And then there are those who never follow up to let you know whether you’ve gotten the job. If you add to that the very real power imbalance of a job interview, it’s easy to see why the process of finding a new job is so difficult.
That pressure is hard on anyone, but it’s exactly that challenge that can add an interesting layer of tension to a novel. And the job search can be a compelling plot thread. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s short story Jane in Search of a Job, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, a young woman who is, as the title would suggest, looking for work. She’s up against competition from many other young women with a decent education; and most have more work experience. So she’s at a point of real concern when she sees an unusual employment advertisement. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ she is hired as a ‘double’ for Her Highness, Grand Duchess Pauline of Ostrova. The grand duchess believes that revolutionaries from her homeland may try to kidnap her, and the idea is that Jane will impersonate her on certain public occasions, as a decoy, in case those enemies strike. All goes well enough until a charity bazaar at Orion House. At that event, Jane finds herself in more danger than she imagined.
People don’t always consider John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to be a crime novel. But there’s definitely a murder in it, and deeply involved in the whole thing is Tom Joad, who’s recently moved with his family from Oklahoma to California. It’s the time of the Great Depression, and, combined with the ‘Dust Bowl’ in certain parts of the US, these years have been almost more than the Joad family can survive. They left their Oklahoma farm because of the dust storms, and were told there was plenty of work on California’s farms. But when the Joads arrive, they find that conditions are abysmal. Those who can find work are given the barest of essentials when it comes to living quarters (and not even always that much). And there are so many people looking for work that the Joads face a lot of competition. One of the elements that comes through in this novel is the power imbalance between farm owners and managers, who are in a position to hire, and job applicants. This sort of job search is among the most humiliating there is, and it doesn’t help matters that there is no legislative or other support for farm workers. Basically employers can hire and fire whomever and whenever they wish, and pay whatever they wish.
There’s also Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Stephen Booker is an architect who’s recently been made redundant. At first, he and his wife do their best to take matters in stride; after all, people do lose their jobs. And he believes that it won’t be long before he finds something else. So he applies, goes on interviews, and endures the difficult process of trying to look for work. Nothing pans out though, and he’s forced to take a night job driving a cab. The idea is that he can still use daytime to keep applying. But he gets a whole different perspective when he meets professional thief Mike Daniels, who takes his cab one night. Bit by bit, Daniels and Booker become friendly, and Daniels finds that Booker could be a real asset. Daniels and his team are planning a major bank heist, and they can use the services of an architect to help them plan the break-in. Booker is reluctant at first, but money is money. So he eventually agrees to Daniels’ plan. Everything goes smoothly, even on the day of the robbery, until a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…
Much of the focus of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola is on Kingsmarkham’s Employment Bureau. Twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande has a meeting there one day with her employment counselor. After that meeting, she disappears. When she doesn’t return, her father, Dr. Raymond Akande, asks for help from Inspector Reg Wexford, who is one of his patients. Wexford isn’t overly concerned at first. After all, there are many reasons a young woman might take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong. But when she remains missing, Wexford decides to look into the matter. Part of trying to find the young woman is tracing her movements, so Wexford and his team interview the staff at the Bureau. They want to talk to Annette Bystock, the counselor with whom Melanie had her meeting. But by the time they track her down, she’s been murdered. As Wexford and the team unravel the mystery, we see the inner workings of an employment office. Rendell also shows readers what it’s like to be looking for work.
And then there’s P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter. Louis Kincaid has come to Loon Lake, Michigan, for an interview with the police department there. He’s looking for a new start, and he’s hoping that he’ll get this job. When he gets to the department’s building, he’s interviewed by Police Chief Brian Gibraltar. It’s an odd interview (some of them really are!), and doesn’t last long. To Kincaid’s surprise, he is hired within moments, and arrangements are made for his start date. Although it is strange, Kincaid doesn’t want to turn the job down, so he accepts. Soon enough, he is drawn into two murder cases. One is the killing of his predecessor; the other is the murder of a retired police officer. It turns out to be a complex investigation that puts Kincaid in a great deal of danger.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Grace Makutsi graduated from the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with the highest score of any other graduate. At first, she thinks that will get her a good job. But as she starts applying for work, she finds out that the women who get those jobs are more often hired for their looks than for their skills. But Mma. Precious Ramotswe is different. Mma. Ramotswe sees that Mma. Makutsi is willing to work hard and is skilled. Besides, she needs a secretary for her new detective agency. So she hires Mma. Makutsi. As fans will know, it’s a very good match for both of them. Still, at one point (in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive), Mma. Makutsi considers leaving the agency. She goes looking for a new job, only to be reminded that applying for work is enervating and can be humiliating. It’s not a pleasant lesson, but McCall Smith does remind readers of what it’s like to be a job applicant.
No matter the circumstances, it’s never fun to look for work. But it is a part of life for a lot of people, and it can make for an effective plot thread.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlish and Edward Kleban’s I Hope I Get It.