Sunday, February 13, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Temporary Detective

I've worked temps a lot in my life. Temps get a bad rap, both from employers and from employees, but I've always found them to be a great alternative to the soul-sucking day job. You can get a wide variety of experience from them, improve your existing skill sets, get an enlightening look at different businesses and subcultures (believe me, real estate appraisal is a subculture!) without getting mired in any of them, and - not a triviality - stretch out your unemployment compensation for quite awhile. One year, when my husband and I both lost jobs and had to look for new ones, between the two lost jobs, temp companies, contract labor, writing, and unemployment compensation we had 14 different tax documents with which to figure our income. Our tax guy looked at the pile of paper before him and said: "Y'all may have been unemployed, but you sure did work!" And it is a hell of a lot easier to drag yourself to a dull job on a beautiful day if you can follow the thought "I don't want to go to work" with the thought, "Maybe tomorrow I won't have to."

Of course, not just anybody makes a good temp. You have to be quick on the uptake; able to find your way around an unfamiliar environment with a minimum of direction; patient (because a surprising number of people who are supposed to train you have no idea what the woman currently on maternity leave did, why it was important, or how she did it); prompt; not easily intimidated by people, procedures, or technology; a good learner; capable of sustained attention; and not fussy. Even if you're on the books as an office worker, you may find yourself working in really funky office/warehouse environments reeking of stale smoke and old mechanical fluids, and you'll be more employable if, on the days you call in - and you should call in every morning so you're at the top of the company's list of people ready and willing to work that day - and they say that they're only getting calls for industrial work you can say in a convincingly chipper voice: "What kind of industrial work? It might make a nice change."

You know who else benefits from these qualities? Detectives!

In a lot of ways, the temporary worker as amateur sleuth makes a lot more sense than most of the ones out there. Temp workers are constantly thrown into unfamiliar environments, and many companies don't hire temps until long after they should have done so. The circumstances that require hiring a temp also create the kinds of stresses - personal, professional, and economic - that prompt folks to kill. If theft occurs on the job, who more likely to find the blame falling on her than the innocent temp?

It only takes a few murders for the audience to start asking "Why does anyone invite Hercule Poirot/Jessica Fletcher/Lord Peter Wimsey to go anywhere when they attract corpses like corpses attract flies? And why would anybody, planning a murder, not wait until after the famous detective had gone?" Generally we swallow this sort of improbability as a genre convention without which the story can't go on. But with a temp, the company generally asks for "a CPA who can type 150 wpm, can figure out the off-brand spreadsheet program the boss saddled us with, doesn't mind making coffee, and will accept minimum wage" not for "Peni Griffin." In fact, even if they are wildly satisfied with a temp and want her back, they don't generally remember her name, but ask for "the one we had last time, you know, the one with the glasses." Often, the boss doesn't tell anybody he's called in a temp till five minutes before she arrives; and doesn't think to call one until the middle of the day, when everything's hitting the fan and he realizes he should have made arrangements the night before. So of course the person who put cyanide in the latte machine doesn't know his nemesis is arriving in half an hour.

It's a great deal of fun to plot a mystery set in an office you're working in. Every job you're going to be hired to do as a temp will become mind-bogglingly dull once you've learned to do it, so you'll be standing at the copy machine listening to the guy with the cold coughing and the receptionist argue with her husband on the phone while somebody behind you complains about the people who always empty the pot and don't start a new one; and you'll pick your victim, his mode of death, his murderer, the full range of suspects and motivations, and plant a few clues, all with a serene smile on your face.

There's a lot of ways to kill people in a workplace. Restaurants (worst job I ever had was in the business office of a restaurant) are full of poison delivery systems and cutlery, but what about a little variety? Can you beat the wine steward's brains in with a bottle of bad merlot? Push a customer into the San Antonio River and then "accidentally" electrocute him? (It's way too shallow and well-policed for anyone to drown on the restaurant stretch.) Is there a way to kill someone with sufficiently hot peppers?

Offices take more ingenuity, but if you don't want to go with anything as obvious as stabbing with the scissors or the spindle you'll still have options. Send him into the file closet where the top shelf has been carefully rigged to give way at the crucial moment, dropping ten years worth of overstuffed file boxes onto his head and snapping his neck. Strangling with phone cords is a little old-fashioned, but what about computer cables? Can a laptop or company-issued cell phone be rigged to electrocute someone? Tamper with the brakes on the company car. Poison the person who's always stealing lunches out of the break room refrigerator. Stab someone with the prized twelve-point buck the boss keeps in his office.

Office/warehouses are death traps. Ask anyone who's worked in one. Heavy equipment. Overloaded mezzanines that shake when you walk on them. Huge ranks of storage racks housing God-knows-what. Bins and lockers plenty big enough to hide a body. Dumpsters emptied on a regular schedule that everybody knows. Refrigerated rooms with locks that can be jammed. Restrooms that never get cleaned and can be blamed for any amount of food poisoning. Safety codes that are ignored because the boss isn't going to let OSHA tell him what to do. Dark corners, dubious electric systems, non-climate-controlled areas that it's possible to get trapped in during extreme weather, employees who cut corners because they're bored.

Banks? I got one word for you: Vaults. I've worked in vaults. They're scary. So are the people who work in banks.

I will not go into motivations to kill one's bosses, employees, and co-workers, on the grounds that I might incriminate myself. Suffice it to say that I have never been in an office in which murder probably did not appear as a tempting option to someone at some time. It's the nature of modern American corporate culture, I'm afraid. I have been in a couple of workplaces that were so bad I had no hesitation in soliciting opinions on the best method of offing a certain person in a fictional work, and was feverishly urged to write the plot hashed out in the shared camaraderie of stuffing envelopes addressed to people who didn't care with mailings the recipients wouldn't read. I've even been in one office where a plot to murder - somebody - in a particularly gruesome way was suggested to me.

The urge to write this sort of book fades as one gets away from the workplace in question. The reason I never developed this idea has as much to do with the fact that writing a convincing mystery set in a particular milieu requires paying more intent attention to that milieu than I was ever willing to give a job as it does with the fact that I'm not really a mystery writer. I can get away with one-offs like The Treasure Bird and The Ghost Sitter, but a series detective, to satisfy the audience and succeed, must be both original and formulaic, with a high degree of structure obscured behind virtuoso presentation of eccentric, seemingly chaotic, detail.

But if you've been thinking of starting a series, and wondering what subculture hasn't been amateur sleuthed to death - consider the lowly temp.

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