How to Succeed*

Internal PoliticsUnless you’re self-employed (and even, sometimes then!), you likely work with other people. And that nearly always means office politics. Political machinations take different forms, of course, depending on the kind of work you do. But they’re likely to be there in some way or another.

All of that tension and conflict can make for very effective plot lines in crime fiction. You’ll notice as this post goes on, by the way, that there won’t be mention of police politics. There are far too many examples out there, as the police figure a great deal in crime fiction. Even taking that form of politics out of the conversation, though, there’s plenty of office politics in the genre.

For example, any attorney can tell you that there’s often a great deal of politics involved in that profession. It certainly helps to have a law degree from a prestigious school. But in many law firms, moving ahead takes more than that. It means very long hours, especially at first, and showing everyone that you’re the first to arrive and the last to leave. We see that in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. The main plot thread of that novel is the murder of Katherine Thorn, common-law wife of Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. Brace himself is the most likely suspect; in fact, he even admits to the first witness on the scene,

‘‘I did it.’’

Crown prosecutor Albert Fernandez knows that a quick conviction in such a high-profile case will mean a lot for his career. And though he’s not unprincipled, Fernandez also knows that getting ahead often means playing politics. So he makes sure to get to his office before anyone else, to be the last to leave at the end of the day, and to ‘dress the part.’ In this particular case, he also goes very hard for the win, as the saying goes. Fernandez’ bosses want him to take the case to trial, too, so he’s under a lot of political pressure to refuse a plea deal with Brace’s lawyer Nancy Parish. He doesn’t want to see an innocent person convicted, but at the same time, a loss in a case like this could spell trouble for him. I won’t give away spoilers, but there are other places in this novel where that kind of politics plays a role.

Fledgling attorneys also know that they may not get very far in their careers if they go against what a firm partner, especially a senior partner, wants. That’s the way law firm politics are. And sometimes that can mean real trouble for the beginning lawyer. That’s what Brad Miller discovers in Phillip Margolin’s Executive Privilege. In one plot thread of that novel, we learn that he’s a newly-minted attorney who works at Reed, Briggs, Stephens, Stottlemeyer and Compton, Oregon’s largest law firm. As do many new attorneys, Miller works an exhausting number of hours, and is otherwise taken advantage of by the partners. One day, the firm’s top attorney, Susan Tuchman, directs him to take on the pro bono case of Clarence Little, who’s been convicted of murdering Laurie Erickson, and is due to be executed. Little wants Reed, Briggs to handle his appeal. From the firm’s perspective, it’s just a matter of form, and Tuchman doesn’t want Miller spending any real time on it. But the more Miller gets to know about the case, the more he begins to suspect that Little is not guilty of the crime for which he’s about to be executed. Now Miller runs straight up against law firm politics. He knows that his career at Reed, Briggs depends on his pleasing the partners and doing what he’s told. On the other hand, this case is turning out to be quite different to what he’d been informed it would be. Among other things, this plot thread gives a really interesting perspective on the politics involved in working for some large and powerful law firms.

As anyone who’s ever worked in a hospital can tell you, politics play an important role there, too. Junior doctors, interns and other medical professionals who are on the ‘lower rungs’ of the hospital hierarchy know that it’s not enough to do one’s job well and establish a good rapport with patients. It’s also important to catch the attention of senior doctors, and get (and stay) in their good graces. Sometimes this means getting caught in ‘turf wars’ between conflicting senior doctors. It’s had a lot of other consequences, too, some of them serious. Authors of medical thrillers often use the reality of hospital politics as important plot points. I’m thinking, for instance, of some of Robin Cook’s thrillers, where we see a junior hospital doctor or pathologist who notices a pattern that senior doctors either want to cover up or don’t believe.

This sort of plot thread has shown up in medical mysteries for quite some time, actually. Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need (which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson), was published in 1968. This story features junior pathologist John Berry, who tries to clear the name of a colleague and friend who’s been accused of negligence and of performing a then-illegal abortion. Along the way, Berry runs up against the most powerful doctor in the hospital, J.D. Randall. That layer of politics adds much to the suspense in this novel.

There’s also plenty of politics in higher education (Oh, come on! You were just waiting for me to mention academia, right? 😉 ). It’s easy to see why, too. For one thing, tenure is highly coveted at institutions that grant it. So some people will go to great lengths to become tenured. And even when that’s not an issue, there are all kinds of promotion, funding, staffing and other decisions that are impacted by institutional politics. I’ve written about it myself (Publish or Perish, if you’re interested).

And I’m by no means at all the only one. Just ask Christine Poulson’s creation Cassandra James. Head of the English Literature Department at St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, she is no stranger to the politics of academia. In one plot thread of Murder is Academic, for instance, she’s just taken the reins at the department, and one of her tasks is to prepare everyone for the upcoming Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding and security depend heavily on its success with the RAE, so everyone’s scholarship has to be as impressive as possible. That’s not going to be an easy task, considering that James is also mixed up in the murder of her predecessor (she discovered the body, for one thing). Among other things, this series (of which Murder is Academic is the first novel) gives readers a close look at the internal politics of university life. Still interested in academic politics? You can also check out Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw mysteries, of which Simon Said is the first. There are many more examples, too.

But you don’t need to be a lawyer, doctor or professor to understand internal politics. Just look around, and I’ll bet you’ll see plenty of examples. That colleague who toadies to all the ‘right people,’ that boss who’s more concerned with her own promotions than with supporting her department, that sales executive who angles for the corner office, well, you know what I mean. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got an email about a meeting I’ve been invited to attend. Never mind that it’s during the weekend, it could be my chance to really get ahead! 



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Frank Loesser.


Filed under Christine Poulson, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Phillip Margolin, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, Sarah R. Shaber

22 responses to “How to Succeed*

  1. I very much enjoyed Publish or Perish Margot and I agree, institutions such as law, health (the ambulance service was fascinating) education and of course local government all come with their very particular politics and cliques. My office politics involve a fifteen month old. I think we all know who wins there! 😉

    • Thank you very much, D.S. 🙂 – That means a lot to me. I’m sure you could tell lots of interesting stories about the emergency care system and the politics involved. As you say, just about every kind of institution has its politics. And that includes the family. I would imagine there’s not much question who runs things in your home…. 😉

  2. Margot: In The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe there are the dynamics of a large firm combined with the intensity of business life in Silicon Valley. New law school graduate, Howie Rickover, is just trying to survive the ferocious office politics when senior partner, Leo Slyde, is slain during an office party. Howie describes the departed to the police as “a flaming a…….”

    • Oh, Bill, that’s exactly the sort of legal politics I had in mind with this post. Thanks for adding that example. And thanks for the reminder of that novel. Thanks to you, I’d heard of it, but not (yet) moved it from radar to TBR. I must do that.

  3. I despise office politics and cliques, but it certainly exists and isn’t going away any time soon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any titles (not enough caffeine yet :-)), but I’m sure I’ve read about it. You always find such perfect examples to prove your point.

    • Thank you, Sue. And I’m no fan, either, of office politics. Those kinds of things nearly always spell trouble, don’t they? Oh, and I’m always for caffeine to start the day 🙂

  4. Another fascinating subject and I do think every office has an element of this type of behaviour which depending how involved you are can be funny to watch or totally exasperating! Elly Griffiths touches on this quite frequently with her creation Ruth Galloway and her boss Guy – he always wants to take the credit to curry favour with his superiors and she lets him… the reason why is open to speculation I think!

    • That’s a well-taken point, Cleo. You see office politics just about everywhere. Sometimes you can sit back and just find it funny. Other times, it’s a lot more serious. Either way, it’s there. And yes, Griffiths does touch on this (thanks for filling in the gap).

  5. What is the saying about academics: the battles are bitter because the stakes are so low. I am thinking of Amanda Cross especially.

  6. James Thurber is known for satiric writing rather than mystery, but I’ve always loved his short story “The Catbird Seat” which is a clever little murder tale involving office politics. It’s in public domain now so you can read it for free, here.

  7. Margot, I have a few books by Michael Crichton but not “A Case of Need.” I think he was one of the most gripping writers of the 20th century. You can’t put down his novels.

    • I agree, Prashant, that Crichton was very skilled at creating those ‘can’t put it down’ stories. A Case of Need is dated in many ways, but it’s a solid example of his ability to invite the reader along for the ride, so to speak.

  8. Office politics and volunteer politics are what keeps me at home writing and creating art. I am very good at recognising that evil, until I am in the situation. Arms length comprehension is so much more satisfying. Love the analysis you’ve put forth here.

    • Thank you, Lesley 🙂 – And I know what you mean. It’s much easier to look at a situation such as internal politics from a little distance than it is to be actually involved.

  9. Col

    I recently read Blue Wicked by Alan Jones where there is disharmony among the veterinary partners in a practice over one of the vets doing work, only tangentially related to the practice, i.e. not enough billable hours!

  10. I often say I like books with certain settings (academic, theatrical), but reading your post and the comments makes me think perhaps its the group dynamic/office politics that I like – so many of my favourite books and authors mentioned in the piece and by your readers. I do enjoy Joanna Dobson’s mysteries, with an academic setting and a LOT of office politics.

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, Moira. There is certainly something about the dynamics among the characters that can add to a certain context (be it academic, theatrical, or something else), isn’t there? And thanks for mentioning Dobson’s work. I need to dip more deeply into her series than I have.

  11. I enjoyed Publish or Perish, also, Margot. And since I work at an institute of higher learning, I can testify to the politics involved in that environment. Even though I am far from the academic side of it.

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