Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

I Knew Right Away, From the Very First Day*

Powerful BeginningsPublishers, editors, and agents all stress the importance of the beginning of a story. There are good reasons for that, not the least of which is that readers usually decide very quickly whether they’re going to invest themselves in a book or not. Some readers decide within ten pages; others take a little more time. Either way, it’s very important to get the reader’s attention right away, and invite the reader to come along for the ride.

There isn’t only one way to do that, and different approaches attract different readers. But there are some crime novels that really do have powerful beginnings. I’m not necessarily referring to the first sentence in the story; rather, I mean the first major scene or revelation. Here are some novels with beginnings that I’ve found particularly powerful. Your list will be different, but I hope this will suffice to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced begins as various residents of the village of Chipping Cleghorn open their copies of the Gazette. In it, they find the following advertisement:


‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 5th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30 pm. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’


It’s an irresistible invitation for the guests. It’s also irresistible for readers. It’s difficult not to wonder whether this is a game, whether there will be a murder, and if so, who the victim will be. When there is, indeed, a killing, Inspector Craddock investigates. With help from Miss Marple, he learns that someone’s done a very effective job of mental manipulation to accomplish the murder.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone has a very famous and powerful first line:


‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ 


As I say, a powerful beginning is more than just a strong first sentence. But this line sets the tone for the whole book. In it, we learn that the wealthy and educated Coverdales hire Eunice Parchman to serve as their housekeeper. They don’t know, though, that she is keeping a secret – one she is desperate not to reveal. When a member of the family accidentally discovers that secret, this seals everyone’s fate. Rendell uses that strong first sentence and builds the tension as we learn the background to this tragedy.

The first scene in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect is also quite powerful – at least to me. Eighty-year-old George Wilcox is standing next to the body of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke, whom he has just killed. Right away, the reader knows who the victim is, and who the killer is. That’s powerful enough that it invites the reader to come along and find out the motive and the story behind the murder. When RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg gets word of the case, he begins the investigation. Wilcox is one of his first interviewees, since he called the police. But Alberg doesn’t suspect Wilcox at first. Even after he begins to believe Wilcox may be guilty, he doesn’t know what the motive would be. What’s more, it’s hard for him to get any direct evidence to support his case. Among other things, this is an interesting matching of wits between Wilcox and Alberg.

The first scene in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip takes place on a cruise of the Florida Everglades. Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone has taken his wife Joey on a trip to celebrate their anniversary, so he tells her. But here’s what happens:


‘At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Joey was too dumb-founded to panic.
I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves…

Joey remained conscious and alert. Of course she did. She had been co-captain of her college swim team, a biographical nugget that her husband obviously had forgotten.’


Right away the reader is invited to wonder why Joey was pushed overboard, and what’s going to happen to her. It turns out that her husband’s been involved in (quite literally) some dirty business. He’s a marine biologist who’s found a way to fake water sample tests so that they come out ‘clean.’ His employer, Samuel ‘Red’ Hammernut has found that skill very useful for keeping eco-minded lawmakers and citizens from disturbing his agribusiness. Joey is rescued by former police officer Mick Stranahan, and together, they come up with a plan to make Chaz pay for what he’s done…

In the first scene of John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his police partner Pinchai are following a grey Mercedes-Benz. They briefly lose their quarry, but by the time they find it again, the driver, William Bradley, is dead of bites from snakes that were trapped in his car with him. Here’s how Burdett puts it:


‘The African American Marine in the grey Mercedes will soon die of bites from Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that yet, Pichai and I (the future is impenetrable, says the Buddha).’


That opening scene is compelling, and it invites the reader to find out who would want to kill Bradley, why that method was chosen, and what the motive is.

And then there’s Scott Turow’s Innocent. That novel begins as Kindle County judge Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is sitting on the bed where his wife, Barbara, lies dead. As his son Nat, says, that’s not really where the story begins. But it’s the powerful first scene in this novel, and is made all the more powerful because he’s been in that room with her body for almost twenty-four hours. As the novel unfolds, we learn about their history, we learn how she died, and we follow along as Rusty is tried for murdering her. In this novel, things aren’t always what they seem, but from the first bit, we’re presented with a compelling scenario.

There are many different ways for the author to get the reader’s attention and invite the reader to engage in the story. In whatever way the author chooses, the beginning of a novel is really important, as that’s where the reader makes the choice to finish the story or not.  Which beginnings have you found most powerful?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Smokey Robinson’s You’re the One For Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, John Burdett, L.R. Wright, Ruth Rendell, Scott Turow

Now, I’m in My Room*

BedroomsA lovely post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about bedrooms. Possibly more than any other room in one’s home, a bedroom is supposed to be a retreat from the world. Bedrooms also bear the marks, if you will, of their occupants more than nearly any other room. So when there’s a disappearance or murder, and police are looking for background information, bedrooms are naturally one of the first places they search.

Bedrooms are supposed to be places of safety, rest, and intimacy. But in crime fiction, at least, it doesn’t always turn out that way. Crime-fictional bedrooms can be downright dangerous.

Agatha Christie shows this in several of her stories; in fact, it’s an effort to restrain myself. Here’s just one example. In Christie’s short story The Blue Geranium, Miss Marple attends a dinner at the home of Colonel Arthur Bantry. During the meal, Bantry tells the story of George Pritchard, whose wife died of what appeared to be shock and fear. She wasn’t well to begin with, so it’s not a complete surprise. In fact, towards the end of her life, she believed that she could only be helped by psychics and seers. That’s how she met Zarida, Psychic Reader of the Future. Zarida had warned her specifically to beware of, among other things, blue geraniums, blue primroses and blue hollyhocks. Mysteriously, the flowered wallpaper in Mrs. Pritchard’s bedroom began to turn blue; the fear that caused seems to be what prompted her death. Some people say Zarida caused everything. Others blame Pritchard, saying he killed his wife. Miss Marple, though, sees things a bit differently. I know, I know, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia and of Cards on the Table.

In K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page, Rocksburg (Pennsylvania) Police Chief Mario Balzic gets a call from Cynthia Sumner, owner of a rooming house for students who attend Conemaugh County Community College. She’s concerned because she hasn’t seen Janet Pisula, one of the residents, for a few days. Balzic agrees to look into the matter. When he does, he finds that his caller was right to be concerned. Janet’s strangled, mostly-nude body is discovered on the floor of her room. On her stomach is a blank piece of paper. Janet was a very quiet, shy student who had few friends and certainly hadn’t made enemies. She doesn’t come from money, either, so there seems no financial motive. As it turns out, a severe trauma from her past has an important role to play in what happens to Janet in this story.

Barry Maitland’s  The Marx Sisters introduces readers to his team of DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. Meredith Winterbottom and her two sisters, Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe, live in one of London’s historic districts, Jerusalem Lane. The residents of the lane all know each other and have typically had good relationships. Then, a development company starts to buy up Jerusalem Lane, with the goal of creating a shopping and entertainment district. Meredith refuses to sell her house; in fact, she becomes the last holdout against the company. Then, she dies of what seems like suicide, and her body is found in her bed. Brock and Kolla are called in as a matter of course, but Kolla isn’t so sure this is a suicide. Brock agrees to give her the ‘green light’ and she starts asking questions. As it turns out, there are plenty of good motives for wanting Meredith Winterbottom dead.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Dr. Raymond Akande is quite concerned about his twenty-two-year-old daughter Melanie. She hasn’t been home for a couple of days, and that’s not like her. So he asks one of his patients, DCI Reg Wexford, to check into the matter. Wexford isn’t overly worried at first, but as time goes on and Melanie still doesn’t turn up, he begins to share his doctor’s concern. When he starts to ask questions, he learns that Melanie was last seen leaving an appointment with a job counselor, Annette Bystock, at the local Employment Bureau. So Wexford tries to speak to her. But by the time he tracks her down, it’s too late: Annette has been murdered in her bedroom. Then, a body is found in a nearby wood – a body that could be Melanie’s. It turns out not to be, though, and Wexford now has three cases to solve: two murders and a disappearance.

Elliott Roosevelt (the son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) wrote a series of crime novels with his mother as the sleuth. There is evidence that these novels might have been ghost-written; but whether or not they were, they present an interesting picture of life in the White House during the Roosevelt years. In Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, President Roosevelt is holding a top-secret meeting with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight Eisenhower. Every effort is being made to ensure that no word of this meeting gets to the press (or anyone else). Then, the body of Special Counsel to the President Paul Weyrich is found in the famous Lincoln Bedroom. Keeping that story out of the press will take even more finesse now. And when it turns out that Weyrich was part of a plot to assassinate Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt knows that she will have to solve this murder in order to prevent another attempt.

And then there’s Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed. In that novel, Tadh Maguire has just started sleeping off a night of far too much to drink. He’s suddenly jolted awake by a shriek from his girlfriend Kate. Then he finds out why she’s screaming: there’s a dead man in his bed. And he knows who the dead man is. It’s Tony Marino, ‘right hand man’ to crime boss Aldo Pirelli. If Maguire calls the police, it won’t be long before Pirelli gets word of it, and of course, he’ll assume that Maguire killed his man. Not a good situation. And there’s the matter of Maguire’s likely arrest for murder. So instead of the police, Maguire calls his friend Jason Choi and asks for his help moving the body. But it’s not going to be easy. First, a couple of thugs break into Maguire’s home, obviously looking for someone or something. When one of them kills the other, this leaves Maguire and Choi with two bodies to hide. So they bring in some more friends to help. When some of those friends are abducted, things get more complicated. And when it turns out that some very dangerous people are after a lot of money that they think Maguire has, things get even worse. It’s a black comic/caper novel that all starts with an unexpected body in the bedroom.

It all just goes to show that really, no place is safe in crime fiction. Not even your own comfy bedroom. Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, please, folks, may I suggest that your next blog stop be Finding Time to Write? It’s a treasure trove of poetry, fine book reviews, and terrific ‘photos.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s All For Leyna.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Elliott Roosevelt, K.C. Constantine, Rob Kitchin, Ruth Rendell

Once Upon a Time in the Land of Misty Satin Dreams*

Fairy StoriesEvery culture has fairy tales and legends that are passed along from generation to generation. Because they’re such an integral part of our culture, it’s not surprising that fairy tales are woven into our daily references and allusions, too. If I mentioned that I knew someone with hair as long as Rapunzel’s, you’d probably know exactly which fairy tale I meant, and how the story goes. That’s how much a part of culture fairy tales and legends are.

We also see them in crime fiction, both in subtle and less-subtle ways. Agatha Christie, for instance, included several references to fairy tales in her stories. One of them is in The Murder on the Links. That story begins with Captain Hastings returning to London after a trip to France. He meets a fellow passenger who, so she says, is going to meet her sister. The two get to talking and end by striking up a friendship. When he asks her name, she tells him it’s Cinderella. Shortly after Hastings returns to London, he and Poirot get involved in a strange case of murder when Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, who lives in the small French town of Merlinville sur Mer. ‘Cinderella’ has a role to play in this story, so we meet up with her again. And at one point she and Hastings have this conversation:

‘‘Cinderella married the Prince, you remember. I’m not a Prince, but—’
 She interrupted me.
 ‘Cinderella warned him I’m sure. You see, she couldn’t promise to turn into a princess. She was only a little scullion after all—’’

Perhaps ‘Cinderella’ doesn’t have evil stepsisters in this story, but the references to that fairy tale are clear.

Nele Neuhaus’ Snow White Must Die features police detectives Pia Kirchoff and Oliver von Bodenstein. In this novel, they investigate a terrible accident in which Rita Cramer falls (or was she pushed?) off a bridge onto a car passing underneath the bridge. As the detectives start to look into the case, they naturally begin with people who know the victim. This leads them to an insular sort of town, where everyone is keeping secrets. It also leads them to a puzzling coincidence (or is it?). It turns out that Rita Cramer’s son Tobias had spent the last ten years in prison in connection with the disappearance of two seventeen-year-old girls. Now he’s been released and has returned to the village. Was he guilty? Then another young girl goes missing. Now the detectives have to ‘fight the clock,’ as the saying goes. This case turns out to be connected to the story of Snow White, and to a play that tells that fairy tale.

Carin Gerhardson’s The Gingerbread House makes, I admit, a less direct connection to the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. But it’s still present, if you look. Stockholm police detective Conny Sjöberg and his team investigate when real estate professional Hans Vannerberg goes out to look at a house for a client and doesn’t return. His body is found at the home of Ingrid Olsson, who was recovering from surgery at the time of the murder, and couldn’t be guilty of it. Since she’s not guilty, the team look among Vannerberg’s family and friends, but there seems to be no motive. Then there’s another murder. And another. Now it looks as though someone either has a personal vendetta, or there’s a serial killer at work. In the end, the answer lies in the past, and in people’s relationships years earlier. This story doesn’t, as I say, directly mention the Grimm Brothers’ story of Hansel and Gretel. And I don’t know for a fact that Gerhardsen took her inspiration from that story. Still, it’s arguably a subtle influence in the novel. There’s even a sort of fairy-tale reference at the beginning of the novel:

‘The brown, Queen Anne-style villa is a stately structure, perched at the top of a grass-covered hill, surrounded by tall pine trees. The white corner posts and window casings, with their rounded corners, give it an inviting, fairy-tale shimmer.’

Despite that almost magical beginning, the story turns out to have anything but a fairy-tale happy ending.

There’s also Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series, which features Sabrina and Daphne Grimm as youthful sleuths. The novels are intended for young readers, and take place in the world of Everafter, which combines real and fantasy characters. Perhaps this series isn’t targeted at adult readers, but it’s an interesting look at how fairy tales and mystery fiction are woven together.

In Ruth Rendell’s Gallowglass, which she wrote as Barbara Vine, we meet Joe Herbert. He’s despondent and in fact, is about to throw himself under a train. But he’s saved at the last minute by Sandor Wincanton. What Joe doesn’t know at first is that Sandor has plans for him. He wants Joe to be his ‘gallowglass’ – the servant of a Chief. Joe is blindly loyal to Sandor, and is easily groomed for his role in Sandor’s plans. And Sandor uses a very effective means for winning Joe over. He tells the boy a fairy tale about a prince, a kidnapped princess, and the prince’s quest to rescue her. What Sandor’s really planning, though, is something quite different. He is obsessed with supermodel Nina Abbott, and intends to ‘rescue her’ from the heavily guarded home in which she lives. His use of a fairy tale is essential in getting Joe’s cooperation in a quest that turns horribly wrong.

Of course, fairy tales and legends come from many cultures, and we see that in crime fiction too. For instance, Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger features the Ute folktale of Ironhand, a Ute who was able to slip in and out of canyons magically. This allowed him to steal sheep from Navajo (the Utes’ traditional enemy) and confound Navajo attempts to catch him. This tale proves useful when a band of right-wing militiamen pull off a robbery at a Ute casino. It’s suspected that Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai was an ‘inside person’ who helped the robbers, but Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito doesn’t think he is guilty. When she tells Sergeant Jim Chee about her concerns, he starts to ask questions. It turns out that the truth about this robbery is related to that Ute folktale.

Fairy tales and folk tales may be dismissed as fantasy. But they have permeated our cultural consciousness. And it’s interesting to see how they also permeate crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Falling of the Rain.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Carin Gerhardsen, Michael Buckley, Nele Neuhaus, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

‘Till I Can’t Take it Anymore*

Pushed to the EdgeVery often, it’s not the major stressors of life that sap us the most. Those tragedies do happen, and they are awful. But they don’t generally happen very often, and if we take care of ourselves when they do, we get through them. No, what pushes most people too far is a buildup of smaller things. Those are the things that threaten marriages (e.g. ‘If you leave the cap off the toothpaste tube one more time….’). They make people lash out at strangers, too (Ever been on a long flight where there was an infant who wouldn’t stop crying? Especially if the flight was delayed, you were hungry, etc…).

That buildup of stress can add a lot of tension to a novel, and it’s realistic too. We all have those times when we feel like snapping because of all of the things that have gone wrong. Sometimes that buildup can even lead to violence and worse, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we see this sort of suspense in crime fiction.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater takes place during a terrible heat wave. Everyone’s miserable, and there seems no end to it. In the midst of this heat, police officer Mike Reardon is shot one day while on his way to work. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Frank Bush investigate. They’re hoping that once they find out what sort of gun was used in the killing, they’ be closer to catching the murderer. Then another officer, David Foster, is shot. His death is similar, so the police have to face the possibility that they are dealing with someone who has a vendetta against cops. In the meantime, the police have other duties as well. One of them is to attend lineups of those arrested for major crimes. The idea of this is that the police will become familiar with the area’s criminals. In one such lineup, we meet Virginia Pritchett, who’s been accused of murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the deed; in fact, she explains that it all happened because of the buildup of tension between her and her husband throughout the heat wave. According to her, the argument that led to the murder started out simply enough and spiraled out of control. And matters weren’t helped by the heat:

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”

We see that buildup of small things leading to disaster in a few places in the novel.

P.D. James’A Taste For Death concerns the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church, along with the body of a tramp named Harry Mack. Because of Berowne’s status, the case is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so it’s going to have to be handled delicately. That’s where Commander Adam Dalgleish, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin come in. They’re the members of a special group of detectives who are assigned to cases such as this, where the media is likely to take a great interest. As the team begins to investigate, one of their first stops is the Berowne family. The Berownes are upper-class, and matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne (mother to one of the victims) is determined to protect the family’s public image. But behind that mask is a lot of ongoing resentment that’s built up. That’s especially true in the case of Evelyn Matlock, who was taken in by the family as a ward, and now serves as housekeeper and maid to Lady Ursula. At one point, she’s had one stress too much, and finally snaps:

“I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.”

It’s interesting to see how class issues come out in this novel and in Evelyn’s reaction.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down introduces us to fuel station attendant Stanley Manning. He’s never really been much of a professional success, and it hasn’t helped his career at all that he has a prison record. Still, he’s trying to make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. The big problem is Vera’s mother Maude, who lives with the Mannings. Maude despises her son-in-law, and the feeling is most definitely mutual. They make each other’s lives miserable in any way they can. In fact the only ray of hope is that Stanley knows he and Vera will inherit Maude’s money when she dies. As time goes on and Stanley feels the pressure more and more, he decides to take matters into his own hands. And if you’ve read Rendell at all, you’ll know that that’s going to spell disaster.

There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa. This story concerns a sales and marketing director named Lomas. He’s always had a nicely ordered life, but times have changed, and now he finds his life unbearable. For one thing, technology has changed the way people shop, so his job has changed. Lomas’ sales strategies haven’t really been able to keep up with the times, so he’s feeling work pressure. Then there’s the way modern technology has changed the way people communicate. The Internet, mobile ‘phones and so on are all troublesome for Lomas. His family adds to these stresses; his children have become teenagers who now inhabit a completely alien world from his perspective. Even the road system has changed. Lomas has tried, but all of these stresses have built up so much that at last, matters come to a tragic head.

That’s similar to what happens in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. That’s the story of former school principle Thea Farmer, who bought some property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains as a place to retire. She had a dream home built for herself and was ready to enjoy the rest of her life. Then things changed. First, some bad luck and poor financial decision-making meant that she couldn’t have that dream home. Instead, she had to settle for the house next door. Then, Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington bought the house that Thea always thought of as hers, and moved in. Thea resents both of those developments very much, and her stress is only increased when Frank’s niece Kim moves in with her uncle. Despite herself, though, Thea actually forms a sort of awkward friendship with the girl. And that leads to more trouble when Thea becomes convinced that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for his niece. All of this stress builds up to the point that Thea decides to deal with the situation herself. And what’s interesting in this story is how much of the stress Thea has brought on herself.

Most of us can handle one stress at a time, like a traffic jam, an argument, an Internet outage or a delayed flight. Pile them all on, though, and they can add up to real tragedy. And they can add suspense and character development to a story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Head Games.


Filed under Ed McBain, Martin Edwards, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Virginia Duigan

Am I My Resume?*

Job SearchIf 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, John Steinbeck, P.J. Parrish, Robert Pollock, Ruth Rendell