Workplace Murders and Real World Heroes and Heroines

By K.K. Beck

I’ve written various workplace novels where an amateur protagonist solves a murder on the job, in parallel with a couple of Seattle detectives named Lukowksi and MacNab. One reason I like writing these workplace novels is because I get to both learn and explain how different jobs work from behind the scenes. (And because I think there is a lot of great humor to be gleaned from the workplace, which is why people tend to joke around a lot on the job.)

But I was surprised when recently someone said that I wrote books about the “underemployed.” To me, my characters in these books weren’t necessarily underemployed. They were simply employed. Perhaps the reviewer saw them as underemployed because they were fixing cars, working in a supermarket and selling ads at a failing radio station but were still clever enough to solve a crime. (In Tipping the Valet, my protagonist parks cars.)

It seems clear to me that intelligent people do all kinds of jobs. And, my dumbest boss ever had a Harvard MBA.

I am irked that we seem to have lost respect for people doing useful jobs, or jobs that involve physical and economic reality instead of the often highly overrated “creativity”. One reason I’m glad my kids had jobs when they were teenagers – they all worked in food service at one point, and other jobs too – is that they now respect working people – and know how to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.

For many years, I’ve worked at a famous aerospace company in Seattle, where my mother worked during World War Two building B-17 bombers as a teenage blueprint reader. I’m retiring in a few weeks, and I’m looking forward to it, but I’ll miss my visits to the factories where the airplanes are assembled.

The men and women there, who build technically amazing, and to me quite beautiful airplanes, generally love their jobs and take immense pride in doing them well. But in movies, factory workers – when we see them at all – are often portrayed as mindless robots or dim bulbs. In reality, people who assemble complex products are well aware of the importance of the work they do and often come up with manufacturing improvements the engineers didn’t think of.

Years ago, while writing mystery novels, I also worked in the fishing industry, writing about the trawlers that fish the North Pacific. The idea was to have health insurance and orthodontia for my kids, and it was also fun to have a reason to hang out in the legendary Elbow Room in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

An unpleasant and very successful New York agent I had at the time told me in a jocular way that she and her trust fund baby assistant had talked about my degrading occupation and thought my job must be the most depressing thing in the world, adding that the idea of doing work that had anything to do with industry would drive them both to actual suicide. But I bet they ate fish.

Apparently, a huge percentage of the people who write movies and television scripts today are rich kids from Ivy League schools, with little experience in the real world, and their naiveté often shows when they try and write about the rest of us. I wish there were more movies about regular people – not just people in glamorous professions. Even in the real world it seems as if there aren’t enough people who know how to do real things – like repair objects that are broken. Or drive any make or model of car without consulting the owner’s manual, like Tyler Benson, my new amateur sleuth from Tipping the Valet. He can also drive backwards at a high rate of speed, which can come in handy when you least expect it.

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2 Responses

  1. K.K., well said, and thanks from those of us who’ve ever toiled in the real world. I learned more about the world beyond the end of my nose, and the value of hard work, from my first boss, a caterer, than from any college professor, which I eventually became. Can’t wait to read the new book. And happy retirement. You’ll love it.

    • Hi Wendy – what do you teach in college?

      I have to admit that one of my working stiff characters who fixed cars in a book I wrote in the 1980s called BODY IN THE VOLVO cars was actually a sociology professor who didn’t get tenure, so I guess he was underemployed. But today it’s even worse, apparently. When I hear about these young adjunct humanities professors of today on food stamps it breaks my heart!

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