Unless 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.