Secretaries and office assistants are often essential to the success of just about any business. The more competent they are, the better the business runs. If you’ve ever had either a very competent or a very incompetent one, you know what I mean.
We see secretaries quite a lot in crime fiction too. Where would Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot be without his secretary Felicity Lemon? Where would Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason be without Della Street? And where would Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti be without Signorina Elettra Zorzi?
The thing about competent secretaries is that very often, they know a lot more about what goes on in a firm than you’d think. And that can make them very vulnerable. There are plenty of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Sheila Webb, who works for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in the town of Crowdean. One afternoon she is sent to Wilbraham Crescent, where her services have been specially requested. When she arrives at the house, she finds that there’s a dead man in the sitting room. Badly shaken, she rushes out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a special agent who’s in the area working on a case of his own. There are some odd things about this particular crime, so Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot and Lamb, together with DI Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle, are looking into what happened when there’s another murder. Now Sheila Webb is mixed up in much more than she thinks…
In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York City when Nick gets reluctantly drawn into a case. Businessman Claude Wynant seems to have disappeared, and his daughter Dorothy wants to track him down. At first, Nick is unwilling to get involved, but the next morning there’s a shocking new development. Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. There are several suspects, too, including Wynant himself. Even Nick falls under suspicion, since the Wynant family members, Wynant’s business associates and other suspects seem to use Nick and Nora’s home as a gathering place. In the end, Nick untangles the web of secrets and lies and finds out who killed Julia Wolf and why.
Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s The Silence of the Rain begins with the death of Richard Carvalho, an executive at the mineral exploration company Planalto Minerações. His body is found in his car, apparently killed by a thief who stole his briefcase and wallet. Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police is called to the scene and begins the investigation. One of the people he wants to interview is Carvalho’s secretary Dona Rose Chaves Benevides. But that turns out to be much more difficult than you’d think. First she’s out sick; then she abruptly disappears. It’s now clear that this death is much more than a case of a robbery gone wrong.
Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With is the first in her series featuring NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. In this novel, murder strikes Vanderlyn College’s Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college cafeteria to get coffee for the various faculty members with whom she works. She puts the tray of cups on the top of a filing cabinet and soon, various people come into the department office to get their coffee. Not long afterwards, deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be poisoning by potassium dichromate. As Harald and her team investigate, they learn that more than one person had a very good reason to poison the victim. Even Sandy herself is a suspect. At the very least, she’s now mixed up in a murder case, just when she was hoping to get her life settled.
In Qiu Xiaolong’s The Enigma of China, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. He is a rising cadre in the Party with a bright future. He’s also a very well-respected detective, with a reputation for being ethical. So the Party is eager to have him as a consultant when Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, apparently commits suicide. Zhou became the subject of a Party investigation when evidence that he was corrupt was spread on the Internet. He had been placed in extra-legal detention and was at a secure hotel when he apparently hanged himself. That explanation makes sense considering Zhou was a high-level official who was about to be severely punished. Chen comes under a great deal of pressure to sign off on the suicide explanation, but he isn’t quite convinced. As he investigates, Chen finds that his role as a cop comes up against the realities that he discovers, and he has to make some difficult choices. One of the people he interviews is Zhou’s former secretary Fang Fang. She had a very responsible position and could have been privy to quite a lot of information. Even if she knows nothing about her boss’ fate, she may very well be helpful. That’s especially true given that she was also, by all accounts, Zhou’s ‘little secretary,’ which implies that she did more than just make his appointments and manage his office. As Chen interacts with Fang, we see just how vulnerable this case makes her. The same powerful people who want this case handled in a certain way are just as interested in keeping Fang quiet…
And that’s the thing about being a secretary/assistant. You often get to know a lot about what goes where you work. So when there’s shady business or worse, you get mixed up in it, no matter how innocent you are (or aren’t). These are just a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser’s A Secretary is Not a Toy.